I couldn’t pronounce the letter R until I was six. Once I could, it turned up in odd places where it was planted by my family’s accent. Boil some oil on the coil, and don’t add water. “Borl some orl on the corl, and don’t add werter.” To this day, I cannot, as myself, say “gargoyle,” “Oil,” or words in sequence with Rs and Ls. My children laugh when I say, “the gargrrrl ate the carn earrrl” in my normal voice and “the gargoyle ate the corn oil,” in a fake British accent.
To fit in, I learned to speak like someone who is not me. I can talk with wealthy white people by dropping my natural speaking voice an octave and taking my accent in a hard turn to the Northeast. I can speak with people comfortable with women being feminine by dropping my natural speaking voice half an octave and letting my polite Southernisms out to play. Only my children and family hear my real voice, the one with inconsistencies and extra consonants, the one whose music sits higher on the staff and whose laughter is a descending scale.
I remember when “like” entered my speech as a verb. My cousin, who was good at being cool, pulled out a little booklet from her teen magazine. I was 9, and she was 10, and we were going to spend the sleepover learning to talk like Valley Girls. “Like, gag me with a spoon!” we giggled. “She was like, ‘I have pink Jordache and mint green ones.'” We were cutting edge conformists, talking like the rich girls on television.
I grew up in the mileau of “yes, sir,” and “no, sir,” and “yes, ma’am,” and “no, ma’am,” and this was respect for my elders. I was to look at people when they were talking to me or when I answered them, which probably explains a lot about my tendency to play far away from other people. At the edges of creeks and sandpits and woods, people didn’t make you look them in the eye to see their pain and fear and doubt. It was always too hard to see right through people. They didn’t usually like being seen through, but they seemed to ask for it rather a lot. I imagined that other people, cool kids like my cousin with the teen mags, had umbrellas in their irises to block out the things people didn’t know they said when you looked at them.
I couldn’t not see, so I had to learn to speak instead. I had to learn that people don’t like to be described. Someone who is practically screaming with anxiety and fear doesn’t want you to say, “I see that you’re terrified.” You can offer them tea or water, and you can see if one of the other umbrella people will sit with them. What you cannot do is let them know how transparent they are. You cannot say that walking into a room of them is utterly baffling because they all lie to each other constantly. I don’t understand if I’m the one making them uncomfortable or if they only hate themselves, so I stay out of the room most of the time. Some of them think themselves dreadfully friendly for pretending to look at you so you can admire them. It’s exhausting to listen to how friendly and honest and good they are, as they patch and spackle the cracks in the self esteem they think so valuable.
I don’t have self esteem. I used to feel bad about it, but now I just accept that it’s a fruitless quest for me. If I try to get self esteem, I wind up a weeping mess. Autistic people don’t have time and energy for made up problems like self esteem. It’s hard enough navigating the world without trying to think of oneself beside oneself, to pat oneself on the back in order to encourage oneself to think well of the thing we’re pretending we are. I’m not whatever it is that needs umbrella eyes to hide it.
The umbrellas and the self esteem are not off topic. They are part of learning to speak. I am autistic, and my children are autistic, and my husband is autistic. We have an unhiding house. I can see what my nonverbal children mean just fine, if I look with my real eyes and speak in my real voice. My real voice is high pitched and full of pictures, perfect for children. My real voice is kind and healing, perfect for broken hearts.
You don’t need to bring your umbrella to sit at my table. Set it down. Let’s help each other to say something true. We are all here learning to speak.
Summer Kinard, BA, MDiv, THM, is an Orthodox Christian author and speaker. She loves to learn and teach and to share what God has done for her. Come here her speak at her workshop on Concrete Thinking as a Model for Evangelism this June at the Ancient Faith Writing and Podcasting Conference.