Though I graduated from speech therapy at eleven years old – I guess they finally trained me to pronounce all my consonants “correctly” – it seems speaking still requires more energy for me than it does for most neurotypicals. For example, when I worked a job that required as much time in important conversation as it did in independent tasks, I skittered into and out of burnout for years before finally entering an intractable episode that resulted in me quitting. I just couldn’t do the job anymore; I was missing shifts constantly because I couldn’t bring myself to attempt the impossible. Part of this exhaustion was the additional difficulties of constant social interactions and multitasking, not speech specifically – and definitely the huge amount of other masking I was doing in order to try to seem “normal” – but now that I understand more about how speech works for me I can look back and see how much it was draining me.
It’s hilarious how well I subconsciously knew that speech is hard for me for the decades prior to knowing about dedicated AAC. For example, in my early twenties I fell into a habit of deliberately spending every Sunday in silence… something I could never explain an adequate reason for, yet I somehow knew that I needed the regular break. For as long as I can remember I’ve relied on handwritten notes on a regular basis for conversing with people in the same room. Now that I have a cell phone and internet access most of my relationships are maintained through texts and emails and instant messaging rather than spoken conversations. As a kid I resented and avoided my speech therapy homework – why work so hard to read aloud “properly” for fifteen minutes every day if I could absorb twice that much precious text in the same amount of time reading quietly? Then as a teenager I sought out ASL classes at community college rather than fulfill my school’s language requirement with one of their speech-based languages. All this and I still had no idea what AAC was – or even that I was autistic.
Coming into the autistic community has saved me in so many ways, and the information about AAC and implicit “permission” to use it is a big one. #AutChat is I think where I first learned that AAC is an actual thing, and I started experimenting with low tech options on my own such as laminated cards with pre-prepared sentences designed for situations I’m likely to be nonverbal in (namely, in mental health crises and especially hospital visits, but I made some day-to-day cards too). Stickman communications gave me some inspiration for this option. Then in 2017, wonderfully, I got to go to ASAN’s Autism Campus Inclusion program and – amongst amazing activist training – met my friend Saoirse and other AAC users. I learned it’s possible any AAC method might prove useful even for autistic people who have thought of themselves as verbal/speaking or semiverbal/intermittently-speaking. With my new friends I experimented with some free text to speech apps on my phone, and Saoirse generously introduced me to their symbols based program as well as their laminated letterboard.
I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that my life changed. Even immediately: navigating the plane home it was slightly less stressful to know that if there was a problem with the TSA (I’m trans, so there’s always a problem) and I ended up in shutdown I might be able to communicate using my phone. I used text to speech to direct the cab driver, and after an initially bad reaction we chatted and they ended up asking me the name of the app because they have an autistic nephew. Finally arriving home in the wee hours, I was less tired than I expected.
Today I use a mix of speech, text to speech apps, symbols based AAC app, sign language, and pen and paper. Often I switch back and forth between methods within one conversation. I use AAC when low on spoons, when out of spoons, or when preventatively trying to conserve spoons. I use it coming out of meltdowns and shutdowns (I find the symbols based app easiest during these times). I use it in my college class and to talk to my neighbors. I use it for medical appointments and group therapy. And I use it simply because my quality of life improves when I can spend the effort it takes to speak instead on things like executive function, the self care I struggle with such as chores and eating well, and activities I enjoy.
If you are also a verbal/speaking or semiverbal/intermittently-speaking autistic person and you’re wondering if AAC might be useful for you – consider this your permission slip! You have the right to try any AAC method you think might be more comfortable than speech. Many states have lending libraries of equipment for disabled people to test out to help them decide whether to invest in a significant purchase – if the less robust free apps available for your existing device aren’t cutting it and you want to try out something fancier, look for a library like this so you can see how it works for you before deciding whether to buy (this is the program I used in Oregon.) And if you find something you like? Whether it’s pen and paper, a small whiteboard, sign language, text messaging, text-to-speech, symbols-based AAC – if you prefer it for any reason, then yes, AAC is for you! You don’t need to prove a functioning label (ick) or a perceivable lack of verbal ability or even a formal diagnosis to somehow qualify to use a method of communication that you benefit from. Don’t listen to anyone telling you forcing yourself to speak is better: there is absolutely nothing superior about speech compared to other forms of communication, it’s just that because it happens to work for abled people it has become the societally normed benchmark everyone is supposed to aim for.