Another Spectrum

Personal ramblings and rants of a somewhat twisted mind

To speak or not to speak, that is the question


That dear readers, is a question I’m unable to answer. At (almost) 68 years of age, I still don’t have a clue when it’s my turn to speak. And it’s not for the want of trying.

I often get it wrong even in one on one conversations, but if I’m in a group of two or more other people I’m like a fish out of water when it come to practising  conversational turn taking.

It appears to me that conversations consist of one person leading and others following, adding variable length interjections from time to time  (the nature and frequency of which varies from culture to culture), and then by some mysterious mechanism the lead is transferred to another member of the group.

To a person like me, the ability of others to smoothly navigate a conversation is more than an art or skill. It has the appearance of the participants having some sort of ESP or supernatural ability that is used to negotiate who says what, and when. In fact there was a period in my childhood when I was convinced this was true, which goes a long way to explain my brief fascination of the paranormal at that time.

I’m sure there’s a discipline of science that studies the mechanism by which people negotiate  conversations, but the average person seems to have no idea how they do it. Believe me, I’ve asked. Typical responses are “I’ve never thought about it” (so I gather), “It comes naturally” (no it doesn’t), “It’s instinctive” (no it’s not), “what a stupid question!” (why?), “everyone can do it” (really? I can’t)), “just take your turn” (when is it my turn?), “just observe and you’ll learn” (I’ve been observing for more than 60 years, so how about a hint or clue?).

It was only eight years ago that I learnt there is an explanation for the reason I find conversation so difficult: I discovered I am on the autism spectrum. However being armed with the knowledge why I fail to recognise non-verbal clues (a skill most people don’t realise they possess), does little to help me. If I concentrate exclusively on another’s body movements or tone of voice, I can maybe recognise something that possibly might be non-verbal clues. However, it’s a moot point as the concentration required means the words spoken have gone in one ear and out the other and I’m unable to relate what might have been expressed non-verbally with what the person has said.

When I first learnt I was on the spectrum, my only “knowledge” of autism was through the film Rain Man. I wanted to prove I wasn’t autistic, and tried many online tests in an attempt to prove the experts wrong. I failed totally. One test I tried (on many occasions) is the Reading the Mind in the Eyes test. This test measures one’s ability to identify emotions in others by looking at an area around the eyes and without any other input.

The test consists of looking at a total of 36 pairs of eyes and choosing one of four emotions to match the image. The mean score is roughly 27/36 for women, 25/36 for men and 22/36 for people who have been identified as having Asperger Syndrome or “High Functioning” Autism. I’ve tried this test on numerous occasions, and the very best I have achieved is 16/36. However most of my results have been close been between 10 and 13, which is only marginally better than one would expect from a tossing a dice to choose an emotion.

So the next time someone appears to be rude by interrupting inappropriately, just consider the possibility that they might struggling, almost to the point of exhaustion, of trying to fit in and having no idea why they don’t. They struggle to fit into your world almost every moment they are awake. It won’t hurt you to try to fit into their world sometimes.

For those who would like to try the test for themselves, there are online versions at and The latter requires Adobe Flash, and provides the answers, both of which are good reasons for me to avoid it.

Author: Barry

A post war baby boomer from Aotearoa New Zealand who has lived with migraines for as long as I can remember and discovered I am autistic at the age of sixty. I blog because in real life I'm somewhat backwards about coming forward with my opinions.

8 thoughts on “To speak or not to speak, that is the question

  1. I’ve done the “eyes” test, failed it, and still don’t believe that you can tell a person’s emotions by looking at their eyes. Whether it’s subliminal, or not, what people are really judging by is the area around the eyes and, so some extent, the rest of the face.

    By the way, I self-diagnosed in my mid-60s, and since I was already well aware of my specific problems, it was no shock to find myself on the autistic spectrum. As for a label that I’m willing to live with… I’m still working on it.

  2. I have never taken this test until today. What I did was use the stuff I had learned about psychological tests and looked for synonyms. If two words were similar I knew it had to be one of them. Then I sat there considering for a long time to figure out which of them it was. Turns out that method worked. I don’t think this can possibly be a test about eyes, because the synonym method worked fairly well. I also tried to scrunch my face into their faces and tried to think about what I did not feel when I had my face like that. I doubt I would have passed if they had timed it.

  3. I took the test many years ago and don’t remember my score, but I think it wasn’t really too bad. Oddly, this time I scored 32 out of 36, even though I answered almost at random on many of the pictures. Maybe I’ve improved over the years. I do know that I’m generally able to judge what people are feeling, but I depend more on voice and over-all facial expression, since I’m not very good at looking at people’s eyes.

  4. Interesting eye test. I scored 27/36 but found most of the eyes, especially female, had completely still eyebrows. To me, no one is concerned, angry or irritated unless their eyebrows are pinched. For surprised, the eyebrows need to be up. So I just guessed contemplative or playful for the women and it seemed to work. They all seemed to look the same to me, though. The men’s were easier to figure out, with the lines and eyebrow movement.
    Thanks for that link!
    I hear your frustration on this topic, though. And I share it.

  5. Yes, interpersonal communication can be difficult at times. I’m much more adept at written communication. My verbal skills often disappoint me.

    Although, I do wish people would listen better. Many times in verbal discussions, people seem more interested in getting their point across rather than trying to digest what the other folks are saying. This can manifest itself in interruptions which are perceived as rudeness, when in actuality the interrupting person was simply preoccupied with their own thoughts.

  6. Pingback: Understanding Neurotypicals | Clare Flourish

  7. Reblogged this on Laina's Collection and commented:

    I really enjoyed this post. A lot of familiar elements here 😊💕

  8. Pingback: To speak or not to speak, that is the question | Another Spectrum – International Badass Activists

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