There are a lot of reasons I get labelled “high-functioning”. I can convincingly simulate eye contact by staring at someone’s eyebrows or the bridge of their nose; most of my stims are subtle, quiet movements that could be mistaken for neurotypical fidgeting; I know, most of the time, when to shut up about my special interests and let other people talk. I don’t mean to present as allistic, but I lived my first seventeen years under the mistaken impression that I was a girl, so I felt an incredible amount of pressure to “be normal”. I learnt, mostly through trial and error, how to pretend that I wasn’t autistic, permanently terrified of outing myself, and when people said I was high-functioning, I took it as a sign that my elaborate façade was holding up well.
And that’s the thing – it was a façade.
In private, and in front of the handful of people I trust intimately and infinitely, there are a lot of ways I look “low-functioning”. The stark difference between the person I am in seminars and the person I am in my own bedroom is a testament to how useless, reductive and outright harmful functioning labels can be to autistic people. With all my energy used up on faking eye contact, subduing my “weirder” stims and making small talk that I neither understand nor enjoy, when I get home from any social function, I’m drained and miserable. This leads to some harmless autistic behaviours, like allowing myself to rock back and forth and make repetitive noises with my tongue, but it also means I sometimes have no energy left to eat, or make it to the bathroom on time, or talk.
Sometimes, I lose my talking energy before anything else.
It’s not always distress or exhaustion that renders me nonverbal. Sometimes it’s overstimulation, or sometimes my mouth words just… don’t work. As a result, I can never accurately predict when I might find myself non- or semi-verbal, so I have to be prepared for it to take me by surprise – and so do my partners. For their benefit and yours, here are some of the strategies I employ to make sure I can communicate well, be it in a kink setting, on a date, or in the bread and eggs aisle of Tesco:
I am currently not in a position to learn British Sign Language properly. I don’t have the energy or time to teach myself an entire new grammar and I don’t have the money for classes. What I do have, though, is a handful of signs at my disposal, learned from YouTube, which can convey key information – things like “too loud”, “sad”, “thirsty” and “thank you”. They come in incredibly handy for nonverbal moments and are additionally useful for communicating with my Daddy across a crowded, busy room – or across his living room, if I’m reluctant to take my headphones off.
1b. There are also some signs I employ that are not BSL, but which are self-explanatory, so people who don’t know any BSL can understand too. These include pointing to things I want/need, covering my ears to indicate auditory defensiveness, and pointing to my mouth whilst shaking my head to indicate I’m not able to talk at that moment. This comes with the added bonus of enabling other people, including those who don’t know any BSL, to communicate in the same way, with pointing and improvised signs, in order to avoid contributing to any overwhelm I’m experiencing.
2. My phone
As long as my fine motor coordination is doing okay (which it usually is, even when I’m very overwhelmed), I can use my smartphone. Sometimes I’m nonverbal because the sound or the sensation of producing my own voice is a sensory input I can’t handle, so I’m still capable of forming complete, coherent, correctly-punctuated sentences, which I can put in the Notes app on my phone or just send as messages to people. However, sometimes I’m nonverbal because I’m super overwhelmed and starting to shut down, at which point my thoughts are jumbled and sentences become much harder. In these instances, I find single, auto-corrected words, the stickers that Facebook’s Messenger app provides and the emojis in my ‘recently used’ section to be the most straightforward way for me to communicate. A music note emoji followed by a sad face is pretty easy to understand as, “This music/auditory input is upsetting me,” and Messenger stickers often come with cute text like “Thank you,” or “Great work!”. Much like signing, communicating via my phone means that the person I’m talking with can communicate in the same way – so if I’m overwhelmed, I don’t need to hear a voice or process spoken words.
3. The clicker
This one is kink-specific, though I imagine it could be applied to other situations too. My Daddy repurposed a dog-training clicker as a safe signal for any scene wherein my mouth is full – maybe I’m gagged, maybe there are genitals in my mouth, maybe I’m facedown with my head buried in a pillow or a pile of dirty laundry. Whatever the situation, one click of the clicker usually means “Check in with me,” and more than one means “We have to stop entirely right now.” The clicker acts as a nonverbal safeword and is deeply comforting to hold (and smooth and cool, so an ideal stim), and I can picture situations where one could make use of it outside a bedroom – like indicating subtly in a social space that you’re feeling unsafe and want a familiar person to show up, or expressing very efficiently that you’re becoming overwhelmed in a busy shop or club.
4. Just fucking roll with it
This one is pretty niche, but I’ll throw it out there: since I’m in a caregiver/little dynamic, and deeply enjoy ageplay, there are times when I’m alone with my Daddy and I don’t even attempt to communicate. I might sign “small” so he understands I’m regressing (and obviously can opt to safeword if he doesn’t want to be a part of an ageplay scene, sexual or otherwise), and then I can relax into little space, ignore all the worries that autistic, anxious, adult Morgan has, and rely only upon pointing and little squeaky noises until it’s time to be big again.
Other ways that you could harness a nonverbal period for kink include human furniture scenes, pet play, service scenes, or any scene wherein you’re playing a cruel or indifferent dominant role. Communication before, during and after scenes is at least as important during nonverbal periods as it is otherwise, so make sure you negotiate with your partner(s) in a way that gives all parties a very clear understanding of the situation, and definitely make sure you have a recognisable safe signal if you’re not able to safeword.
How do you like to communicate when mouth-words aren’t an option?