expressive language vs. communicative language

[Me trying to explain how I can both be extremely articulate and adept with some kinds of language, and yet struggle to maintain basic communication in others.]

this is a distinction that makes my weird language ability/disability combination make a lot more sense. like, i’m on the spectrum, and i have weird language expression and comprehension issues, but language is simultaneously one of my greatest strengths…and i think this is why.

  • expressive language: using words to describe and express yourself, including sensory info, some feelings, your perceptions of the world, etc.
  • communicative language: using words for the purpose of communicating information to other people, based on supposedly shared social rules, expectations, meanings.

my language use is very expressive. it has always been. i spoke very early, and precisely, and i have always enjoyed writing poetry and stuff like that. i live in metaphor. not because i’m being “abstract” and “figurative,” but mostly because in my head i think in concrete, non-verbal terms. so just describing my thoughts involves using sensory/concrete language, and since thoughts are supposed to be “abstract,” most NT people assume that i’m being “metaphorical.”

but here’s the thing. i don’t really talk to people. my communication is mostly talking in the presence of others. examples: when i was little, i didn’t ask people questions, or respond to them well. i also did not make typical requests: if i felt ill or hurt, i could not go and tell someone “i’m hurt” or “i’m sick.” i would just say “ow” over and over, or cry. when i was older, i eventually learned to say “ow” or cry in same room as a parent/trusted adult, so they might notice me. when i wanted something, i would name it or describe it. that is all. if i wanted to draw, i’d say “paper” or “markers.” if other people couldn’t infer that i wanted to draw, then they couldn’t understand me.

even now, i have a huge amount of trouble answering questions correctly, communicating information people need, describing my ideas in a way other people understand, and requesting help/information from other people. it’s worst in doctor’s and psychologist’s offices, and academic contexts. mostly because, since i have pretty good expressive language (sometimes), and i have a number of automatic scripts, i usually manage to give an answer to people’s questions. but i don’t understand the question, or the rules/social expectations about how my answers should be languaged. so i usually answer a different question than the one asked, give an answer that makes no sense, or give an answer that is expressive without being communicative.

it is difficult. mostly because NT people don’t get this distinction and assume that if i give an answer, or say something, i do so with all the same understandings and meanings and contexts that they do. which is almost never true…blerg.

Image Ten-year-old me lying on our living room couch, looking up from reading a giant book (Diana Wynne Jones, I believe), with my baby blankie. R.I.P. BlueBlankie 2002-2013. 

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3 thoughts on “expressive language vs. communicative language

  1. Thank you. This helps me understand my highly expressive but low receptive language ASD 8 year old daughter. I would be so lost without the blogs you and other adult autistics write. You help more than you can imagine.

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