Vocalisations

I make noises. I’ve always made noises. Noises are as important to me as speaking.

Social animals are a lot like computer networks. They “ping” each other. In computers, pinging is simply sending a tiny message from one computer to another and getting a response. It’s a very small conversation that goes something like this:

Computer A: “Are you there?”
Computer B: “I’m here”

Humans are social animals, and they have a more complicated conversation. It involves small-talk.

Many Autistic people struggle with small-talk. It’s easy to see it as useless and irrelevant, because of the way in which our brains work. Neurotypical people tend to perform a combination of two types of communication. One type is communicating content, the information that gets passed between two people that is of mutual interest. The other type (and the one that’s often much more problematic for people on the spectrum) is communicating just for the sake of it. This is the type of communication that drives relationships. A kind of complex pinging in which people check that their friends are alive by making small-talk in order to maintain a connection with them. The difficulty with this kind of communication is that us folks on the spectrum often see this as useless noise. It’s evident that you’re both still alive, and you’re communicating no interesting content.

The world of “how’s the weather”, and “is that a new haircut?” can be difficult to navigate. Sometimes, I feel the need to “ping” other people, but don’t quite know what to say. A noise can fill the gap here! I realise that I’m very lucky to have a partner, friends and colleagues who understand my need to make noises, and that some of the people around me are learning what my noises mean (often just as I’m realising for myself what they mean).

For me they’re often indicators of mood. I make noises mostly in the cat-like range such as meows, purrs, growls, hisses and squeaks. I don’t recall ever having decided that I would make these noises, they’ve just been happening for as long as I’ve been speaking. I’ve identified enough meaning in my noises to be able to put together a short dictionary, so here it goes:

Question marks indicate a rising intonation as often used when asking a question.

Exclamation marks indicate a note of urgency or surprise.

Quotation marks indicate that the word is pronounced… well, in a human accent, said like it’s written. Conversely, lack of quotation marks indicates that the word is onomatopoeic and is the closest description to the noise I make.

mrow?” – a statement of curiosity or interest. It fills in for “I’m interested, tell me more.” or “Yes, I heard that bit, carry on”, or “You called my name, what do you want?”.

mrow!” – accompanied by a worried expression, it’s for moments of fear or uncertainty. It says “This is scary and I need reassurance” or “You are coming back, right?” or “I need hugs immediately!”

eep!” or “meep!” – an expression of surprise or shock, like when someone drops something, or I narrowly avoid something falling on me.

weep weep” – indicates a general sad and lost feeling, cause often unknown. Length of the “e” sound in the middle indicates intensity.

purr? – another statement of curiosity or interest, more often directed at objects than people. “mrow?” expects a response, whereas purr? doesn’t.

purr – often I just make this noise at myself when I’m happy.

snort/snuff – I’m feeling frustrated or irritated or confused by something.

arrwa” – with a rolled “r”. Very much like pinging, this one expects a response, and results in something like noise ping-pong.

Once, I stopped making noises. I was working as an intern in a very professional business. You know the kind, glass fronted offices, curvy desks, custom branded wallpaper, and the feeling of silence reminiscent of a cube-farm despite being an open-plan office. The silence was… oppressive. All day I’d keep a lid on my noises. It didn’t do me any good. The internship went smoothly, but at the cost of leaving me exhausted at the end of the day just from holding it in. My new place of work is much more accepting, so much so that a colleague remarked that she knew I had been sad for a while, because I hadn’t been making any noises, and she knew I was sad because I seemed to make noises when I was happy. Cool, right?

While these noises could replace sentences, small-talk with my friends, and difficult conversations about feelings with my partner, they serve as a useful shorthand for expressing my feelings.

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