I like to be really transparent. Early after a TBI, I had such magnificently apparent social communication impairments that my verbal blurts were excused. As I recovered in visual processing, attention, balance, auditory processing, and something else I can’t remember (probably memory), I looked a lot less disabled. That made the blurts more noticeable and out of place. [Side note: if you work in brain injury rehab, notice I did not include executive function in that list of improvements because that was on a painfully slower recovery trajectory.] As long as I was well-rested and with friends I could usually control blurts. Add in stressors like exhaustion, a crowd, background noise, and the blurting would let loose.
While verbal outbursts are often considered inappropriate, there’s a beautiful truth behind them. I told someone once she reminded me of algae. While she shamed me for about 10 minutes in front of other people for this transgression, what she failed to do was find out what I meant. I was attempting to give her the highest compliment I could think of. I’d been searching in my mind for how to compliment this person, and all that would come to me was a sensation of appreciation and an image of algae. So I told her about the algae.
Algae–the kind I was picturing–is a luscious jewel-tone, so saturated in color as to almost be unbelievable. It’s miraculous in its depth of color. It’s soft and inviting, pleasantly fuzzy even when wet. (That is so cool about algae!) Algae appears delicate but is robust, spreading its influence far and wide. You can try to stop it, but you must humbly lose. Your algae will return, and no matter how you feel about that, it will always be back: strong, resilient, soft, and green.
This was several years ago when I had no capacity to verbalize an explanation like that. It was just a sensation, the color, my childhood memories of Texas summer heat on my skin and the softness of algae on my arms as I rested in the freezing, unchlorinated waters of Barton Springs. I felt the memories, and I wanted her to be loved the way I loved playing with the stringy strips of green that floated on the clear spring water.
But no. Inappropriate. Rude, inconsiderate, oh well.
I have many Autistic and neuro-diverse friends, and we spend a lot of time communicating online. Since I now live in the frigid tundra of Portland, Oregon, I’m not hanging out at the swimming hole anyway. So I’m online a lot. I’ve learned many wonderful things about effective communication from this particular community, and I want to share two of my reflections about that here.
- Sometimes there is no cruel intent at all behind a statement.
Why, exactly, is it a problem if I say I don’t like your dress? I’m only saying I don’t like your dress. This isn’t to insult you. It’s 100% possible for me to dislike your dress while still holding you in the highest esteem and even asking you for fashion advice down the road.
Consider that sometimes there is no emotional baggage, ulterior motive, or crap behind verbal outbursts. They’re thoughts that come out without regard for the listener’s feelings. But that doesn’t mean they’re intended to hurt the listener.
If I say I don’t like your dress, we could move on. You’re even welcome to tell me that hurt your feelings! Then, I can say, “I’m sorry for hurting your feelings.” This is how it goes when you’re transparent with your thoughts and don’t assume someone’s trying to hurt your feelings.
- Be so transparent that it hurts.
I like to use HTML mark-up. You don’t have to understand computer code to do this, and in increases the odds that your intentions will ring loud and clear online.
If I want to be sarcastic, I make that into HTML-type instructions. (Instructions are inside <>):
<sarcastic>I don’t like your dress.</sarcastic>
(Of course, I don’t get why someone would say that sarcastically, but they might.)
If I need you to know that I sincerely love your dress:
<sincere>I love your dress.</sincere>
In real life, I speak in HTML opening mark-up. I say, “It doesn’t sound like I mean it, but I really like your dress.” Or, “Don’t be fooled by my tears; I’m really happy. I’m just crying.”
When someone with executive dysfunction blurts, even if they say something hurtful, you’re not obligated to assume it’s supposed to be hurtful or inappropriate. There’s always the possibility that the words came out in an unintended tone of voice, the wrong words came out, or that they were exactly the right words, but you didn’t want to hear them.
I want to make sure that we find partnerships in communication. People with brain injury are expected to curb our verbal outbursts, think before speaking (who really does that?), and be more kind and polite. I would ask that as we work on steps in that journey, listeners explore their listening and investigate the ways in which we are just as likely to misunderstand what someone said (or meant) as we are to sometimes say something that didn’t work out. Transparency, not resentment, might be a great key to helping us get through the awkward blurty times, whether we’re the listener or the blurter.
Cheryl Green, MFA, MS
Cheryl creates media that combine personal narrative, humor, and social critique to create dynamic, accessible tools for cross-disability justice. She is on the board of Disability Art and Culture Project and served on the board of Brain-injury Information Referral and Resource Development (BIRRDsong). She volunteered with the National Black Disability Coalition and the Portland Commission on Disability.
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