Look who’s (not) talking too

I like to talk. A lot. The vast amount of energy I have in my body often transforms into rapid-fire emissions of endless verbalising, extemporising, riffing, and the expression of random and over-analysed thoughts that ping around my busy head. See, I’m doing it already!

Ask anyone who knows me well, and they’ll probably say I remind them of a cross between that manic savant Jordan from Real Genius (classic 80s comedy) and the Sally Weaver character from Seinfeld. The latter does have red hair and a propensity for high-energy conversation so it’s a solid link.

No-one complains when I lose my voice from illness (happens maybe once a year). Indeed non-medical types around me plump for “better not strain your voice, Mel, try being more silent”. Only yesterday, my friendly local coffee provider recommended I try a decaffeinated beverage to help “dial things down”.

Thanks for the suggestion, but I’m either operating at 0 or 11 and there’s no dimming of the interior lights when they’re burning their brightest.

Unless, of course, you are my controlling, hyper-vigilant five-year-old, Amelia, and you have decided to be the Sheriff of Talk Town. In that case, I have little to no agency and when her little hand reaches for the ‘off’ switch, the time for talking is over.

A curious and sometimes frustrating facet of Amelia’s Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is her anxiety about people speaking, particularly sudden or raised voices or laughter. Anything that signals to her that calm has been disturbed, even if the sounds are essentially happy, at least to our ears.

Amelia is often unable to interpret such sounds as positive ones, and so she becomes highly agitated and on the lookout for ways to lock things down to a neutral (and quiet) zone.

I suspect that her hearing loss plays a role here too, where the increased volume of overlapping speech sounds might come across as distorted and unpleasant, received as they are through hearing aids which can never fully replicate the sophisticated noise filtering of an ear without nerve damage.

I’m also aware how frustrating it must be for Amelia to have to work so hard to listen, hear, and speak so that when other people commence an interaction that is, to her, exclusionary, the sounds might be intolerable.

Whatever the cause, some days are filled with nervous tension as soon as Amelia’s Dad and I try to have a quick conversation, share a laugh or shout to each other from one room to the next; all ordinary sounds of life in a communal household, but to Amelia, they’re like alarm bells heralding something disquieting that needs to be warded off.

She used to shout at us to stop talking or put her body between us to cut things off mid-stream. For a long time we would just wait until she went to bed at night to try and resume a story begun many hours before.

We’re often awake in the wee small hours of the morning, whispering our way through a towering stockpile of unfinished chats and exchanges.

On other days when Amelia’s anxieties are really out of control, she will run from room to room shrieking, “Are you ok, are you ok, are you ok?!” at me if she has heard me sing or make any kind of sound that is presumably coming at her like fingernails on a blackboard (and my singing’s not THAT bad).

She’ll yell at us to “stop screaming” even when our voices are low and moderated as we know they need to be so as not to agitate her. But sometimes it’s hard to do that when you’re having a spontaneous response to something you see on the television or read in the paper.

Or, say, you just like to banter with your life partner.

Amelia’s newest strategy has been the most effective and on some level, at least a little amusing, because in our crazy household you gotta laugh. You just have to.

If I come home from somewhere, filled to the brim with anecdotes to be told, funny stories to impart, Amelia is at the ready with her gun hand, poised to take me out of the conversational equation with devastating speed and accuracy.

She will simply climb onto or next to me and place her hand firmly over my mouth. Not in a creepy way like John Huston’s giant hand silencing his ‘granddaughter’ in the final scene of Chinatown, but it’s not exactly a warm or friendly gesture.

Amelia knows that I will keep trying to talk for as long as I can, underwater, in the shower, wherever I can to feel alive in the world. And she’s absolutely jack of it.

Her preference is for me to remain mute until the conversational winds have passed and no-one has the stamina to keep talking anymore. Or that I should only talk to her and answer her relentless questions about where individual characters on the television screen have gone when they’re off screen and when they’re coming back.

So Amelia employs her patented five-fingered hand clamp on my resistant mouth. She leans in close to my face, lifts a finger to her lips and whispers with some menace, “Shhhh. No. More. Talking”.

Yes, my doe-eyed daughter morphs into a ruthless standover merchant and the steel in her eyes and her voice tells me she ‘aint messin’ around. I’m only just realising how much ownership Amelia claims over me and my face – she has her hands on my cheeks or my mouth all of the time, pulling me closer to her so she can read my lips or hear me more clearly.

She evens signs words in Auslan on my body as well as hers to make sure she’s getting her chosen point across. There’s not a lot of scope for free speech or movement in a relationship as full-on as that.

It’s not as extreme as this all of the time and Amelia’s anxieties peak and trough depending on how calm she’s feeling generally, or how under control her senses are on any given day.

I suspect that her irrational response to our talking has a lot to do with just that – control – the need to dominate us and bend us to her will when so much in her life is far beyond her control.

While we are amused by this ‘game’ of ‘no talking’, after a while you realise that your child isn’t learning at all how to live in a household where sometimes there are people talking around instead of to her and that the sky isn’t falling as a result.

If we simply cave in, Amelia will just steam roll over the top of us until no-one is talking, or sleeping, or walking or having showers alone or just getting on with their day without managing the intense needs of the strongest personality to walk the planet since Mohammed Ali.

She has to learn how to compromise and how to WAIT. They’re important life and social skills and we’re doing Amelia no favours by not pushing back and trying to teach her some behavioural limits.

So when she starts in with the shouting and the mouth-clamping, we have to set a visual timer and tell her that Mummy and Daddy are ok, we’re not screaming and that talking is ok. We are going to talk for five minutes and she has to keep playing with her book or game, whatever, until the timer and we are done.

It’s a battle that’s in its early stages and often five minutes of ‘talking’ will be peppered with lots of yelling and physical interventions from Amelia, desperate to rest the floor back from us. But you have to persist, if you want to preserve your marriage, your individuality and the relative sanity of your home.

We’re nowhere near solving this latest parenting challenge to pop up in our family soup. The minute you think you’ve covered off one problem, another one pops up ready to confound and frustrate.

For now we’ll keep setting timers and having interrupted conversations and hope for the restoration of ‘calm’ someday soon.

Because noise – jokes, stories, laughter, tales – are the spice of a happy family life, and the best lesson I can teach Amelia is how to recognise the positive notes when she hears them and one day she’ll realise that’s it’s safe to join in.


5 thoughts on “Look who’s (not) talking too

  1. Pingback: Careful she might (not) hear you | moderate-severe/profound... quirky

  2. I’m really interested to hear about Amelia and her dislike of your talking or laughing. I know a number of children who are either deaf, deaf and autistic, or autistic only; and who also have similar dislikes. One was a hearing boy with ASD, who went bananas ever time his mother laughed. Another hearing boy couldn’t bear his younger sister crying. Another boy (deaf with cochlear implant) was a bit like your Amelia, standing between me and his parent as we talked, and telling us “don’t talk ” – but was happy for us to talk with him; a young girl ( deaf) would tantrum and prevent her parents talking to each other. Most of the children I mention had several characteristics of ASD but are not formally diagnosed. One child I knew learned to fully accept a disliked noise ( the washing machine) when we used counter-conditioning; ie while being exposed to the washing machine sound, he was given his preferred /rewarding activities to do. I wonder if it would help children with these anxiety reactions to voices, if we video- recorded the situations they dislike, and use these for desensitization, with a reward for watching / listening; or for counter-conditioning.

    • Thank you for the fascinating response Gaye – I haven’t heard about counter conditioning for this type of anxiety before. It makes a lot of sense to me the way you explain it. I might look into it with our family’s clinical psych and get some advice. Your insights are valuable and much appreciated. Best, Melinda

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