Wednesday, October 15, 2008

A blind guy and an Aspergian walk into a bar . . .

. . . . And each one picks up a telephone.

That sounds like some kind of joke, but it’s not. I actually credit the insight for this story to Paul Van Dyck, a well known radio personality in Portland, Oregon. Paul happens to be blind, and we had a fascinating talk about our respective conditions.

What do Asperger’s and blindness have in common?

Both conditions leave us unable to read body language or visual cues in others. We can’t instinctively read faces, like sighted nypicals (I know, that sounds like some kind of bird. For the rest of this little story I’ll say nypical but I mean sighted nypical. Blind nypicals aren’t nypical anymore. They’re blind) To succeed in life, Aspergians and blind people need to develop other skills to compensate. And some of those skills become very apparent . . . you guessed it . . . on the phone.

When we speak on the phone, all we have to work with is the spoken words and the melody of the voice coming through the phone. For nypicals, sight is the brain’s top priority when engaging other people. Much of their brainpower is focused on the other person’s face and occasionally their body, to divine those important unspoken messages.

Blind people and Aspergians can’t do that instinctively. Aspergians can only do it with conscious effort and practice, and blind people can’t really do it at all. But we can do something else – we can pay very careful attention to the words and inflection of people who speak to us. Since we’re not tying up brainpower reading nonverbal cues, we are free to deploy those resources to analyze speech. And we do it well.

When I spoke with Paul, I was struck by the clarity and precision of speech, and the way he immediately “got” what I said. In the middle of our conversation, I had an epiphany of sorts. I realized that telephone conversation is a place that both of us can really develop a competitive advantage in life. In face to face meetings, we’re disadvantaged because we don’t see what’s obvious to most nypicals. But on the phone, the tables are turned. We’ve compensated for part of our disability by increasing our ability to process and interpret spoken words, and when sight is taken out of the picture . . . voila! We’re on top.

There have been many times that I've done a phone interview and the other person says, "You sound so good on the phone . . . I can't believe you have trouble connecting to people in person." It took a conversation with a blind man to show me the answer to that.

I'll be interested to hear what some reader's thoughts are on this issue.

Meanwhile, we'll return to the bar, where Jimmy the Dwarf is stepping out with a full bottle of whiskey. . . .

11 comments:

Fi said...

Fiona here (from facebook) - my 8 year old daughter Laura actually has trouble with the phone more than talking in person, it seems. She's very reluctant to talk on the phone most of the time and when she does, she doesn't seem to understand the rules of phone use, like what to say when, and even how to hold the phone.

So I think part of it is the pragmatics (age will probably fix that part) and part of has to do with her auditory processing weakness. I would say there are probably plenty of Aspergians who are like that - more visual and less able to process what they hear. So I guess that puts her at a disadvantage because she's visual, yet has some trouble interpreting subtle cues. She did do well on a test for facial expressions though, so maybe she's got an advantage there, over some other Aspergians (and certainly over blind people!).

I, on the other hand, enjoy talking on the phone as it's less threatening and I don't feel so exposed. I'm not a diagnosed Aspergian but I certainly have strong tendencies. As a teenager I once made friends with a boy on the phone (through a radio talkback show) and we we eventually decided we should meet as we clicked so well. When we finally met, I was shocked that he was a very touchy-touchy person and I just couldn't handle being around him, so we had to remain as phone friends. Perhaps a good illustration of what you are talking about.

R said...

Wow. I never thought of that. My son (who is about as Aspergian as you can get, and he is 12) sounds pretty robotic on the phone (probably because what I tell him to say is what he says). But---he rarely talks on the phone either, so perhaps if I encouraged more of that I would see more of what you mean.

I read your book, but I just don't remember reading that you are a literal thinker. Are you a literal thinker? My son is so literal it is almost unbelievable. Some of his responses sound sarcastic and rude when he is responding to something he has taken literally. It is hard for me to have patience with this. It doesn't seem to be getting better either. Any comments on that?

I wish someone could study this kid. They'd have a field day.

Cloudia said...

hmmmmm....perhaps that's why i like being a writer; sending my polished words out without the distractions of my presence.Without the distractions of others behaviors and attitudes...hmmmm

desikitteh said...

i envy you here. i'm just as lost on the phone because i have issues understanding tone of voice, too.

China said...

This is a good insight. My son is on the autism spectrum AND visually impaired. He's not blind, but he does not see well enough to read facial expressions - unless they are close and obvious. He's 9 and doesn't have any friends to chat on the phone with, but maybe this is something we should work toward. It might be a good exercise for him - to make a phone friend.

John B said...

...on the phone and ON THE RADIO! You were brilliant on the Monarch Hour on Monday, John.

Cheers,

John from Monarch

PS: Listen to John and Carol Race (whose son was excluded from her church with a restraining order)here: http://archive.kpft.org/

Just scroll down to The Monarch Hour on Oct. 13 and click play. (also available on podcast)

Kim Stagliano said...

Maybe that's why so many people with autism blog? It removes a hurdle?

Interesting "observation."

We nypicals often hate email because of the same reason, you can't make your point properly and people miscontrue you. You sound harsher than you meant to without the facial expression to show your true intent, etc.

So, does that mean there's a big trade in autism phone sex? ;)

K

piglet said...

this is very interesting john, i've often wondered why my husband does much better with phone conversations versus face to face contact.

our first year together was done mostly over the phone b/c we lived apart. his intuition over the phone is spot on, compared to in-person not as accurate.

thanks for posting this, i'm guessing if i can relate there are more out there.

Laura said...

So aspies can intuit verbal or spoken social cues?

And by that I mean, what's up?

kidding.

Laura

ps I like your blog...

Tori said...

Thank you so much for this post! I have been blind since birth and it never occurred to me that I could be better than sighted people at anything. The implicit messages that we get all suggest that having a disability puts you in a one down position. I am a counselor and answer a hotline a lot of the time and I like the idea that I could be better at it due to something many people consider negative.

KateGladstone said...

Re:

" ... we [blind people and Aspergians] can pay very careful attention to the words and inflection of people who speak to us. Since we’re not tying up brainpower reading nonverbal cues, we are free to deploy those resources to analyze speech. And we do it well."

Then what happens if an Aspergian is deaf?