Let’s go back to the scene in the carriage from early in Order of the Phoenix. After getting off to an awkward start, Hermione tries to recover the conversation by commenting on Luna’s necklace. “It’s a charm, actually,” Luna responds, then leans forward. “It keeps away the Nargles.”
There are a few seconds of silence that seem uncomfortable for everyone but Luna. Finally, she pronounces, “Hungry. I hope there’s pudding.”
The scene that just unfolded is actually a good example of what a conversation with an Aspie can be like. (Or at least, I can certainly remember having conversations that went that way with classmates my age.) It may not seem like it, but I think Luna is trying her best to politely participate in the conversation in this scene.
It can be a challenge to keep a conversation going with an Aspie. Hermione actually started out really well by commenting on something literal and specific, Luna’s necklace. The intense focus on details that tends to come along with Asperger’s means that, as long as the topic is something I have “data” about, my mind almost instantly brings up a catalog of information to answer with.
It’s a lot trickier to come up with an answer to a question that’s more open-ended, like “What’s going on?” or “How is your day going?” (First, I need to remind myself that these questions usually don’t literally mean that the other person wants to know everything that’s going on in my life. Then, I need to select an answer that matches the level of depth the other person actually wants.)
Assuming I’m not stumped for something to say, there are still a couple of pitfalls that can derail a conversation at this point. One is to give a response that answers the question but doesn’t suggest anywhere for the conversation to go.
For example, suppose someone messages me on my computer asking “Hey, what are you doing?” and I respond “I’m going to watch a movie.” I have answered their question directly and fully. If it were a question on a test, I should expect full credit.
But look at it from the other person’s point of view. Now they don’t have anything specific to respond to! They could try again with a different question, but at some point they will start to wonder whether my closed-ended response really means “I don’t want to talk right now.”
A better response might be something like “I’m going to watch Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. Have you ever seen that one?” Providing more information (and especially asking a question) tells the other person that I want the conversation to continue.
The other extreme can happen if the conversation turns to a topic that falls under an Aspie’s specific area of interest. “Finally, we’re talking about something I love!” I think, and a ten-point lecture begins spilling out in a burst of enthusiasm. This has a tendency of scaring the other person away.
Getting back to the scene, Luna’s special area of interest is magical creatures, particularly ones that most people don’t know about or don’t believe exist. She spends a lot of her time thinking about them. In explaining the purpose of her necklace, she brings up the topic of Nargles, which she could surely spend quite some time talking about. (She suspects they have been stealing her possessions.)
If I had to guess, Luna has already discovered that most people aren’t interested in hearing about creatures that they think are figments of her imagination or made up by her father’s silly tabloid. It’s part of why they tease her. Even though she could surely regale Harry, Ron, and Hermione with all sorts of fascinating facts about Nargles, she holds back from saying more. I think this is either because she has been made cautious by previous experiences of trying to share about her strange obsession, or because she is trying to be polite by not dominating the conversation.
In either case, Luna’s caution proves justified, as none of the others is interested in hearing about more creatures that quite possibly don’t exist. They’re uncomfortable saying any more because they don’t want to hurt Luna’s feelings by letting her know how strange she seems to them. And so the group falls silent.
There’s one last thing about the scene that feels familiar to me. I didn’t have the words to describe this until I read a touching blog post written by an autistic woman about an elderly neighbor who had passed away. She described his manner of speaking as “more a series of announcements than conversation.”
When I read that, I suddenly realized that I often communicate this way, by suddenly stating something I’ve been thinking about without worrying about how it’s related to something else. I do this most often at home with my family, because they are used to it. With me, it’s very often a statement about something that happened in sports or science or some news about a favorite TV show. We’ll just be sitting there silently, and I’ll say “Temple is joining the Big East,” or “Someone discovered the world’s smallest chameleon,” or “They’ve started filming season 7 of Doctor Who.”
Luna does the same thing when she suddenly makes a comment about being hungry and liking pudding. And it’s not really the statement itself that comes off as odd, considering that the first thing the students will do when they reach their destination is eat dinner. It’s the fact that her statement isn’t directed toward anyone in particular.
To whom is she speaking? Everyone? No one? Herself?
Does it matter?
Well… To most people, it does. At least based on what I’ve read about conversation skills. Most people expect that when you speak, you are intentionally addressing someone in particular (or a particular group of people). And once again, those nonverbal signals of body language, facial expression, and vocal inflection are usually what communicate that intent– the very things that people with Asperger’s and autism struggle to master.
I find I am often content to fling my words to the air and hope they’ll find their own way to the intended recipient(s). Usually I’m just glad to have them out of my head, because it already took me a lot of energy to organize my thoughts into words and verbalize them.
But that kind of communication tends to throw people for a loop; they’re not used to hearing statements that don’t seem to be directed toward anyone. They don’t know if they should respond or not– what if you were just thinking out loud? Sometimes people’s brains are so used to a “normal” conversation that they won’t even hear what you said at all!
I think that non-directed statements can also be a symptom of being shy. It’s hard to speak with intention if you aren’t very confident. And if someone reacts to what you said in a way that you’re afraid might be negative, you have the fallback of being able to say “Never mind,” or “It’s nothing.” Shyness is not the same thing as autism or Asperger’s, but it makes sense that the two can go hand in hand– if you struggle with nonverbal cues because of how your brain is wired, I think you are likely to become shy about speaking up.
I’ve still got more to say about how the character of Luna Lovegood develops as the series goes on, so I guess there’ll be a least a third part to this series! (…Nathan said to no one in particular.)