languaging translation

we say “behavior is communication” a lot. because it’s true, and important.

it is also a vast, vast understatement.

because here’s the thing. communication? it’s behavior. it is, and it will continue to be, no matter how many times the powers that be try to teach us that language is a set of rules, a dictionary, a grammar-work book or a computer program. language is the way we change and move with our world, patterned and pulled through like fabric and thread.

so when we say “behavior is communication” we don’t just mean “when your kid has a meltdown, there’s a reason for it.” we mean “look at how your child moves, and where, and when. how do they move with people? how do they move alone? when are they still? if they sing and speak and pattern-repeat, what part of their environment plays the tune they’re talking to?”

part of the difficulty, of course, is that being autistic doesn’t just mean dealing with normally constructed language differently: it means constructing a language for yourself differently, abnormally, atypically. most of the time, the same rules you use to learn spanish or german or english or whatever in school will not apply to the language of an autistic person: we use smaller things and make them mean more, or larger things that mean something small.

sometimes we make our patterns in different dimensions than most people–sideways not time-ways. jokes that are funny not because they say a funny thing, but because when you layer the first context you experienced for these words on top of the current context you’re using these words in, the combination of the two is hilarious. scripts that mean feelings, because the origin of the script is a scene full of that feeling. even scripts that mean feelings because the first time you heard them, you were feeling full of a certain feeling. sometimes it’s like we live a life full of songs reminiscent–your breakup ballad, wedding dance music, earliest church hymn…all these are the size and heft of our voices on repeat.

just because someone speaks the words you speak doesn’t mean that their language is like yours–we build our ideas with different materials, in different environments, for different reasons. the next time it seems like we’re going in circles with our mouths or our minds, remember: even as we circle, time is passing. now is different from one moment ago, which was different from two moments ago, and that means every time we do a circle, the circle has changed. maybe only infinitesimally. but truly. and sometimes circles can get wider, or narrower; sometimes it might look from above like we’re tracking the same path, over and over into the ground…but if you climb down onto the ground at our level, you’ll see we’ve been spiraling up to the sky, or carving down into the center of the earth.

just because someone doesn’t speak words doesn’t mean that they do not language at all–to live in a world is to language, no matter what. you have to learn their language the way you learned words as a baby–open your eyes, look, feel what happens in the space around you, and wait. find their vocabulary–but also their medium. do they bounce and swing around the world like gravity is the only touch holding them together? are they enchanted with the corners of things; your shoulders and elbows and cheekbones when you move? do they sing so that the air around them is always vibrating at just the right wavelength?

i could go on. i could tell you about how technically, everyone speaks their own language. how nobody communicates by sending signals in some universal code, not really. i could explain how we’re always grabbing handfuls of the air that other people shape around themselves, and pulling them through ourselves, like thread and needles and fabric (again, and again) until we’re all haphazardly woven together by those pieces of our worlds. i won’t go on though. there’s too much still to learn.

here’s an echo. wait. stop listening. start listening.

When I think of the patience I have had
back in the dark before I remember
or knew it was night until the light came
all at once at the speed it was born to
with all the time in the world to fly through
not concerned about ever arriving
and then the gathering of the first stars
unhurried in their flowering spaces
and far into the story the planets
cooling slowly and the ages of rain
then the seas starting to bear memory
the gaze of the first cell at its waking
how did this haste begin this little time
at any time this reading by lightning
scarcely a word this nothing this heaven

(“Just This” by W.S. Merwin)


10 thoughts on “languaging translation

    • I knowww. Tactile thingsssss. I changed it because I felt like it might be a bit too sensory and sideways an association for most people to make easily. But I also love Merwin, because vestibular/kinesthetic language. Flying and turning and flying and turning and spinning and falling and moving and rain. Yeeeee.

  1. My mouth is hanging open. I want to quote a line here and a line there and say, “This!” and “Oh my effing God, THIS!” but I’ll just end up copying and pasting the whole damned post and saying. “This,” because, holy shit, Em, THIS. Thank you for this.

  2. This is so cool! May I include a link to this in a website I’m creating? It’s for parents/anyone who want to know more about autism and is a doorway to AUTISTIC voices/bloggers and neurodiversity friendly parents/professionals. The website is under construction but the facebook page (Autistikids) is up and running – full of links to the sa ofme type posts. I can be reached at if you have any questions. Thank you!

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