The thing!

Allistic people in general have this obnoxious habit of substituting nonsense words when they can’t think of the correct word for what they want to say. I wouldn’t mind that on its own – goodness knows I do it enough when having my own word retrieval issues or stutter problems – but the big problem is that they seem to expect everyone else to understand what they mean by it.

They get away with this because, by and large, other allistic people are able to puzzle out what they mean through a combination of guesswork, nonverbal cues, and social intuition. This creates a problem wherein they then expect everyone to be able to puzzle out what they mean.

An example, pulled almost verbatim from many real-life interactions of this sort, to illustrate the problem:

Person: Can you hand me the thing by the thing on the other thing?
Me: *blank stare* What?
P: The thing! By the thing on the other thing. Can you hand it to me?
Me: I don’t know what you’re talking about. What do you mean?
P: *speaking slowly and gesturing* The thing. By the thing. On the other thing.
Me: I don’t understand. What thing?
P: You know what I mean!
Me: No, I don’t!
P: God, you’re useless! I’ll do it myself!

When I was a kid, the above exchange would often see me grounded for “being difficult” or “being rude” or “talking back.” But I did not and still do not understand what people are talking about, and I am baffled at how allistic people can figure out as nonsensical a phrase as “the thing by the thing on the other thing.” What thing? What are you talking about?!

I will offer some advice, as a person who very often has trouble with words and is bad at emoting and doing the sort of nonverbal gesture-communication that allistics seem so fond of. If you (general-you, I include all people capable of communicating with language in this, though most people with speech issues probably already know about it) find yourself interacting with a person who is not understanding what you’re meaning about when you substitute a nonsense noun for a word you can’t think of at the moment, don’t take it personally. The other person is probably not aggravating you intentionally. They probably honestly have no fucking clue what you’re talking about.

So, here’s what works for me, since I can’t do the gesture-thing allistics do all the time: Describe what you’re talking about. Talk around the thing you’re having trouble finding the name of. I’ll give you an example of me talking with someone when I wasn’t able to make the word “snowman” happen:

Me: Those kids look like they’re having fun.
Person not looking out the window: Yeah? What are they up to?
Me: They’re building a – a. A. A, um. Crap. Thing.Person: A what?
Me: It’s big and rounded and white and bumpy. Has a carrot face.
Person: Snowman?
Me: Yes! Exactly. A snowman. They’re building a snowman.

And the conversation continued from there. Neither of us got aggravated or upset, and it didn’t spark a fight (by contrast, getting angry and calling someone names will spark a fight). Talking around the word giving you trouble allows meaningful conversation to continue and prevents excessive aggravation or frustration on either end because some communication is still happening.

This, like giving directions to misplaced objects, is another way that I find autistic people in general tend to have superior communication skills to our allistic peers. We know how to keep communication happening when we blank on a word because most of us have no choice but to figure it out as we grow up, due to our language and communication difficulties. This is another case where accommodating a disability will actually make your life easier, too – now, rather than grinding the conversation to a halt while someone plays 20 questions with you, you can keep meaningful communication going. The blanked-out word becomes a pothole rather than a roadblock to communication.

Take advantage of the workarounds autistic people and those with speech impediments have learned to effect communication. You might be surprised at how effective they are.

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5 thoughts on “The thing!

  1. pensiveaspie says:

    My husband does this all the time on the phone and it makes me so frustrated. “So I talked to that guy about the thing and he didn’t sound happy but he thinks it will be ok.” What guy? What thing? What? WHAT? He will sometimes get so frustrated with me. He’s a good husband but his phone communication skills are not so great.

    Thanks for this blog. That’s a great workaround. I’ll share it with him!

    • ischemgeek says:

      I had to learn how to do it because stutter. If the phrase “dinner table” isn’t happening, I had to learn how to, “the place where we eat food with people.”

  2. invisibleautistic/Robin says:

    Reblogged this on Invisible Autistic and commented:
    Had to reblog. A family member I suspect of being borderline autistic is exhibiting similar allistic behavior by calling everything the thing or pointing “over there.” I have long suspected that his intellectual capacity more than compensated for any inability to find the thing

    • invisibleautistic/Robin says:

      I think a family member (suspected autistic, unconfirmed) actually learned the allistic behavior, because he’s been referring to everything as “the thing” or “the thing over there” and expecting me to be able to know this as well ;__________; I’m not sure how he learned it, but he must have been able to develop workarounds or just has an exceptionally good memory for where every item is and what it’s used for so he’s less likely to get “the thing” wrong. Even if I got the context, though, every time I hear “the thing” I only hear “the thing” not “the newspaper” or “the book next to the TV.”

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