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The pitfalls of being a verbally intelligent autistic

This article was originally posted by Anna Lansley on: autism is individual

Recent research from King’s College London has found that verbally able autistics learn social skills at a price https://www.kcl.ac.uk/ioppn/news/records/2018/march/high-iq-autistic-people-learn-social-skills-at-a-price

This news is no surprise to me, and reading it resulted in many a aha moment.

If you have a high verbal IQ, it stands to reason that you can use that intelligence to store a verbal pattern or repertoire of sayings and even metaphors (once learnt and stored, that is). For example, at least when younger, I was very literal and misunderstood many common metaphors that other children would have grasped by my age. By adulthood, thanks to extensive book learning and exposure, I am far more fluent with metaphors, at least the ones that I have read about and memorised. Yet this verbal fluency disguises my difficulties with understanding sarcasm and jokes or white lies that involve working out non verbal cues. If you have the ability to memorise word pictures and associations (a high verbal IQ usually gifts you with this ability) it is possible to learn poetic language. This can make you appear very verbally fluent and articulate, and can even help an autistic to learn basic conversation skills. However, context specific innuendo and irony is far harder to work out in real time social situations (although I have learnt how to use irony myself, and I have the ability to play with language, much to my enjoyment!). Unfortunately, though, this means that other people might overestimate your social ability, and when you fail to get a joke or a hidden meaning, they might express surprise or even resort to being patronising.

Verbally able autistics can, through advanced imitation and verbal learning, look really good socially, even though this is very hard work. Despite appearing to have ”got it” socially, there will always be a processing delay and an inner block over higher social nuances, which means that others might detect a difference they can’t pin down as you don’t look disabled. Therefore, you might receive the barely disguised derision of others, further impacting self esteem. This is my experience anyway. And I still don’t understand relationships or socialise with ease, but because my brain is able to memorise verbal information so well, I can project an image that is discordant with my inner reality.

This discrepancy can be compared with the uneven profile that some autistics display at school when reading. To explain; when I was at primary school I could read 5 years ahead of my age, but I could not comprehend what I was reading. I had the vocabulary but not the ability to understand subplot. Consequently I was kept back on level one reading when, all things being equal, I should have been reading advanced novels. These days my comprehension for fiction has improved, but within real world interactions, I have some mechanical ability but without the comprehension. I can articulate (like I could mechanically quote text), but I can’t easily make sense of the rapid fire social information. I really need a translator!

The price, as this article explains, is that most verbally able autistics experience extreme and chronic anxiety and social exhaustion on a daily basis. No matter how motivated socially they are, they still come up against the autistic social block which means they can’t understand people, struggle to read people’s emotions or know how to make meaningful connections with others. Speaking personally, I feel very alone in the world, and often feel that most people (apart from the few I have got to know and trust well) are out to get me, harbor ill intent towards me, and look down on me. Not being able to read or understand people always makes me assume the worst, and my past experience has been one of rejection and a sense that others are patronising me or getting frustrated over my tardiness and processing delay.

The key point this article makes is that, despite apparently good surface social skills, high compensators are just as severely affected in their understanding of others as autistics who can’t compensate (which means using a high verbal IQ to camouflage the social disability). Moreover, the compensation breaks down in unstructured social settings. For example, when I am with my support worker I can appear very social. I can hold a conversation with her with apparent ease, and I certainly do not feel the same tension that I do in most social situations. This is because I am in control over the interaction, I know precisely when the interaction will end, the interaction is one to one and I do not have to expend so much energy trying to work out what the invisible rules of the game are within the interaction. It is important that people understand that superficial social ability within this circumscribed setting does not transfer to other settings. When I am in unstructured settings, group situations in particular, I feel incredibly tense , and feel overwhelmed by all the social information flooding my senses. I find it really hard to make and maintain friendships because of the invisible social rules and unpredictability involved. But because of the apparent discrepancy between settings, this might be hard for someone to grasp if they see how well I can interact with my support worker. The discrepancy even confuses me, and can make me doubt my autism. This is because it’s so hard to understand how I can appear so social in some structured, controlled settings, yet can’t have meaningful relationships or even friendships and get so overwhelmed by the world.

Understanding the link between high verbal IQ and surface sociability is a helpful way in to understanding this seemingly enigmatic discrepancy between mechanical skill and understanding. In a sense, I exhibit advanced copying skills. I have stored enough verbal models and scripts over the years to be able to enact a seemingly successful social persona in some (and only some!) settings. But I am no less autistic than someone who can’t memorise verbal conversation skills, and, it is also easy to forget how much effort it has taken me to get here. As a teenager I really struggled to hold conversations even in structured settings, so my progress is really thanks to the ability to remember and store. All skills can be improved, even if someone is not naturally good at a task, and this is no less true with socialising. But please don’t forget the price it has taken to get there, and the ongoing exhaustion and depletion of energy that too much socialising can bring. Socialising will always be hard work for me, and, because of this, I have to carefully ration my social time. Consequently, I spend most of my time alone, am terrified of unpredictable and unexpected social encounters, and would be very isolated were it not for my regular support worker sessions.

Compensating for poor social awareness comes at a price.

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