My Black Autistic Languaging, Code Switching, and AAVE

Key & Peele from their "Obama and Luther" Skit (Source: Ian White/Comedy Central/AP)

I’ve said before, in other spaces, that I am multilingual. Some folks who don’t know me well may call bullshit on my assertion. Nevertheless, it is the truth.

“Alright, Ian,” some of y’all might say. “I thought you only spoke, read, and wrote in English.”

Well, hold on a moment. I need to help you understand why I say I’m multilingual—and why as a multiple personality system, we say we’re multilingual. This requires us to explain how we language: how we generate and process thought, how we communicate, and how we choose the language or dialect in which we deliver the message. This also requires us to define exactly what is a language as used in our system. This also means we must discuss the very nature of the English language itself: in particular, American English.

Thought and the Work of Translation

Some of you who remember my older essays (as Nicole Nicholson) will recall my story. I realized I was Autistic at age 33, and received an official diagnosis later in 2010 after I’d turned 34. Prior to that, I’d found some aspects of myself mystifying: for example, the relative ease with which I communicate in written language as opposed to how I use language orally. In my research, I found Temple Grandin’s theory that Autistic folk think either a) visually, b) in patterns, or c) using verbal logic—i.e., “lists and numbers.” The truth is, Autistic cognitive processes as described to me by other Autistic people cannot neatly be placed into such boxes.

I know as a system, our own mental cogitations also don’t fit Grandin’s “boxes.” We mostly think in either still photographs or full-motion video without a matching soundtrack. I and Asatira knew this at first, and to us it inherently seemed very Autistic. We also think in sounds, with audio tracks of old songs heard from decades ago, bird calls, meowing, the spit and crackle of fireworks, hissing, humming or other sounds. Except for songs, they usually do not contain human voices unless we’re deliberately trying to replay the words someone spoke to us. Sometimes, recognition of concepts, emotions, or truths come to us as unwordable sensations: no visuals, no sounds, no other data.

How do we translate from native thoughtstream to written or oral language? It’s not as easy as it looks to outsiders. For visual cogitations, we must find the words that most accurately describe or convey what we see. Poems often come in frozen frames or short movie clips, and it is our task to render the sensory data into words. It’s a similar process with even unwordable sensations and other inner data formats. Turning this essay into words required conversion of different kinds of thoughtstream content.

Nah, Ya Don’t Say? Speaking and Writing as Separate Processes

I am not the only Autistic who finds it easier to communicate in writing than in speech. In fact, it seems to be pretty common in our population, and I suspected years ago that the two methods are handled by two separate mental processes. Apparently, researchers believe they have found a possible explanation. In 2015, three scientists published the results of a study that seems to prove that written and spoken language result from separate, independent cognitive functions. They had studied five stroke victims who displayed aphasia, which refers to a group of conditions that can affect one’s ability to communicate. One of the three researchers, Rice University professor Simon Fischer-Baum, gave a brief explanation in their published paper of how this might work:

“Intuitively, it seems like written language should be dependent on spoken language since we learn to write after we learn to speak and learning to write involves sounding words out. But in fact, it appears as if, once we learn to write, our brains develop specialized mechanisms for written language, even for high levels of language processing.”

What I find particularly ironic is that their conclusions about speech and writing being fueled by separate processes might have possibly been reached sooner if other scientists had bothered to study partially or completely nonspeaking Autistics, provided the Autistic people in question consented to participate. However, why should I be surprised? The medical, scientific, and psychology fields continually display willful ignorance, or a flat-out lack of interest, in engaging directly with Autistic people. Their views of us as unknowable mysteries to be unlocked at best, or nonsentient unethical beings at worst, ain’t nothing new.

Code-Switching and Blackness in America

 When Black people discuss code-switching, it most often means shifting between standard American English and African-American Vernacular English depending on the setting or audience. If you grow up Black in the United States, there’s a good chance you learned how to do this as a child or teenager. Whether your parents insisted you speak “proper” at home or not, you might have juggled between “proper” English and AAVE on a daily basis. You could easily move between “I’m getting ready to leave” and “I finna go,” and perhaps as an adult, you now swap between these two modalities without even thinking. This Key & Peele skit is a comedic example of code switching, and I’m dropping it here to illustrate my point. (CN: profane language.)

If you’re not Black and you’re reading this, you might be wondering why code-switching is even necessary. (Hopefully, you’re not the sort that thinks of AAVE as “improper English”—if that’s the case, then I suggest you read the University of Hawaii’s AAVE page, this post on Language Jones, or hell, even this Wikipedia article to understand why and how it is a dialect of English. I’m not ‘bout to spend my damn time here explaining all the intricacies of that here. I may do that in a future post, however.) In order to understand why Black people (perhaps any other person of color) employ code-switching, it’s critical to understand that basic American culture comes from a very Eurocentric view that demands assimilation.

Assimilation: Resistance is Futile

This sort of erasure is a very real thing for people of color, for both the native-born and immigrants. I know that for me, code-switching became a way to assert my own Black identity while adapting to different situations. How I execute it is my own method, resulting from years of trial and error: it’s different for everybody. Media critic Eric Deggan revealed his own experiences in this April 2015 NPR commentary, and Hanifa Barnes briefly discussed it in this post on For Harriet.

Code-Switching While Autistic and Black

 Our teenage experience is that of a multiracial person assigned female at birth, with one Black parent and one White parent, growing up in a racially divided steel mill town in Ohio. One question we were repeatedly asked as a teenager by our Black classmates was, “Why do you always talk so proper?” Which sometimes was worded as, “Why do you talk so White?”

We didn’t know. We couldn’t answer. It didn’t occur to us that our speech had a skin color.

We used to think that they were showing a disdain for education, along with perhaps ignorance and flat-out rejection. Discovering other Black Autistics who shared similar stories about their childhoods only solidified our belief. However, the truth behind our classmates’ questions may have been more complex. We could be wrong, but we’re now guessing that the fact of our lack of code-switching could be one of the reasons for our problems moving through social circles growing up.

At 40 years old, we’re trying to learn more about how to code-switch. None of us are as adept as we’d like to be. We’re juggling several languages and dialects in this brain of ours: our native thoughtstream code, standard American English, Shit Job (a name our friend Puzzlebox gave to the type of overwrought, formal speech we’ve had to use in many work environments), and AAVE. And that’s not even counting our unique poetry dialect we’ve crafted on our own to give form in words to what we see, hear, and feel in our headspace.

Navigating While Drawing a New Map

Our experience as a Black Autistic person has been marked with social isolation, confusion, a so-called failure to understand “the rules,” and even questioning our own Blackness. We cannot speak for other Black Autistic people, but some of the experiences of those with whom we’ve spoken do tend to mirror some of ours. This is a case where, as Ian likes to say, your mileage may vary.

As for many forms of social “rules,” we’ve often found that Autistic people are expected to know them without so much as an explanation, yet we are penalized when we do not conform due to either genuine ignorance or deliberate choice. This seems to be a common problem for Autistic people, no matter what their cultures of membership are. (Quite frankly, some of the “rules” ain’t nothing but a bunch of bullshit. Who decides these “rules,” anyway?) I must wonder if Autistic people generally feel that they must develop the ability to code-switch, but if it’s more salient for Autistics of color.

A while back, we as a system made the deliberate decision to deliberately embrace AAVE and use it more often. I was already fascinated with words and language as a child, and researching the origins and grammatical construction of AAVE has been enlightening. It also helped me break the misconception in my own mind that it wasn’t “proper” English. Not only that, it plus discussions with other Autistic language nerds have given me insight into the racist, classist assumptions behind what is “correct” English. Keep in mind that groups who speak forms of vernacular English such as AAVE and Southern American English are also frequently chastised for not using “the right” grammar, vocabulary, and so forth. Furthermore, they are frequently judged to be “uneducated.”

Conclusion: we’re a Black, Autistic multilingual multiple personality system. Or, you can say we’re multi-dialectical if you prefer. Either way, learning new dialects and ways of communicating was crucial to our survival, as well as our ability to navigate life.

(Written by Ian, cosigned by Nico, Asatira, and Jason)

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About The Teselecta Multiverse 12 Articles
The Teselecta Multiverse are a multiple collective consisting of Ian Nicholson, Nico St. John, Asatira Monae Jones, and Jason Ian MacDonald. They are autistic people in a Black, trans male body creating poetry, fiction, essays, and erotica about disability, transness, the intersections between disability and race, multiplicity, personhood, and language,