Difficulties related to pragmatics, or the social role of language, is a prevalent autistic trait. This is especially the case with atypical prosody. Issues with volume control, as well as with the rhythm and stress patterns of speech, are all related to the concept of prosody. Prosody can tell us someone’s intent in a conversation. Atypical prosody isn’t often spoken about when discussing autism, but it’s very often experienced by those of us within the autistic community, and the social situations arising from it are commonly discussed among us.
Throughout my life, I’ve often been told that I need to sound more enthusiastic or excited (often accompanied by phrases such as a sarcastic “don’t sound too excited!”), I’m talking way too fast, or that I’m speaking way too loudly and I’m practically yelling. I’ve also routinely been asked if something’s wrong because I’m quiet, or asked if I have any thoughts on a matter because I have a minimal response.
I’ve gotten this not only in public spaces, but at home as well. Growing up, my parents often told me that I was speaking too fast or too loudly and they would seemingly get annoyed with my lack of control. I took real hits to my self-esteem as a kid because of it and it made me feel like even more of an outcast. Even now as an adult, when I spend time with my parents, I’m met with similar levels of annoyance from time to time.
It can be embarrassing, especially as an adult, to get these sorts of responses from peers. It’s really hard when you hit that wall and feel like your adult peers are correcting your speech, because you just aren’t getting it right. Even at times when I’ve thought I was excitedly joining in on a conversation, I’ve been met with exasperated looks and blank stares, because I was just too much for people. Conversely, when I’ve been more reserved in conversation, people have thought that I was just aloof. It has been hard for me to find a conversational middle ground, and I’ve often felt like there is just no room for me to win, so to speak.
“Talking too loud or too softly” is very often listed among autistic traits, but it’s not necessarily accompanied by the label of prosody. The majority of neurotypicals I know have the ability to naturally control the speed and volume of their speech. They’re just instinctively able to do it, and they don’t have to constantly be reminded to lower their voice or to speak louder or more slowly. I genuinely don’t have this instinct, and I often have no clue whether I’m speeding through a conversation, practically yelling at someone in my excitement, or whether my speech is basically inaudible because I’m speaking so softly.
I’ve found that I tend to speak most quickly and at a greater volume when I get excited about a topic of interest. I want to be sure to include my input and excitement, but that can sometimes translate to me essentially dominating the conversation in an overly boisterous way. I will keep getting louder, until I remember to pause for the other person’s response, in an attempt to read their expression, or if they tell me I’m being too loud or I’m speaking too fast for them to keep up. Otherwise, I honestly don’t know this is happening.
I also have difficulty controlling my volume when moving from one environment to another. For example, if I’m in a busy coffee shop where I feel like I need to speak loudly, to outside where it’s quieter, I have difficulty noticing that I need to lower my voice once outside and recognizing that I will still be heard if I do.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve realized that I tend to speak more quietly when I’m feeling stressed or overloaded and the words just won’t come out, or when I’m feeling uncertain or anxious about my response. When I’m overloaded, it can be really difficult to respond in conversation, and initiating conversation is sometimes impossible.
If I’m not feeling self-assured in my response or if I have to ask someone (particularly a stranger) a question, I tend to do so quickly and quietly in an attempt to get it over with. This can come across as me mumbling, seeming shy, or being unassertive. Growing up, I was often told that I seemed overly shy and that I just needed to “speak up” even though I was really trying and I thought what I had to say would actually come out at a normal pace and volume.
In addition to modulation, prosody also includes rhythm and emphasis in speech. Autistic people are often told we can be monotone when speaking and that we place odd emphasis on certain words or phrases. We’re told to seem more enthusiastic or happier, even if we’re perfectly happy. These types of statements can leave us feeling really misunderstood.
Autistic people often don’t know that we’re speaking too fast, loudly, quietly, or in a monotone way. We understand that we sometimes display what others may consider to be odd speech patterns, but when we’re in the middle of a conversation, we tend to not recognize that it’s happening.
It’s also important to note that many autistic people not only have difficulties related to expressive prosody, but to receptive prosody as well. It can be equally tricky for us to decipher what others are trying to convey socially, as it is for us to modulate ourselves. Acknowledging that we often experience these difficulties can lead to greater understanding in conversation.