Decoding My Autism

For a long time, I've tried to understand what goes on in my brain. Along the way, I've learned some things and made discoveries that have helped me live a better life.

  • Dan Bell

Finding My Voice

All my life, I've had trouble putting thoughts into words and expressing myself. This is especially true when I'm speaking. To this day, especially when it's a deeper thought, I have trouble turning my thoughts into coherent sentences. Until a few years ago, whenever I would try to speak, I would speak with a form of stammer. I would start to say a sentence, get a few words into it, and then start the sentence over again, repeating those same words because I continued on and finished the sentence. I was as if I had started speaking before I knew where the sentence was going, and when I had a better idea of what the sentence was, I would start the sentence over and speak the complete thought.

I wondered why I had so much trouble. Was it that the part of my brain that created words had trouble making them? Was it that it had trouble communicating with the other parts of my brain? I knew that the different parts of the brain had trouble talking to each other in autism, so maybe that was it. The answers came when I learned how the brain turns thoughts ino words and forms a coherent sentence. Many thanks to my Anthropology professor, Dr. Mansperger, for the explanation of the brain structures involved in speech, and especially for being willing to send me his lecture notes on the subject when I asked for them - six years after I took his class.

When we talk about the ability to speak and put thoughts into words, we sometimes use the phrase "speech center". The thing is, this isn't just one speech center - there are essentially two, that we know of. It starts with an area of the brain known as Wernicke's area. It's responsible for the meaning of words - both choosing words and understanding them. Then the words are given to Broca's area, responsible for putting the words into the right order with proper grammar, and then pronouncing them. The thought is then sent to the motor parts of the brain so that they can be spoken or written

Connecting these parts of the brain (and others involved in speech production and comprehension) is a nerve bundle called the arcuate fasciculus (which I'll abbreviate AF). It connects these different parts of the brain and moved the thought from place to place in the brain as needed to conceive and then produce the sentence. Similar happens when we're trying to understand speech as well - Wernicke's area identifies the significant words, and then Broca's area analyzes the structure of the sentence for the full meaning.

We know that in autism, the different parts of the brain have challenges talking to each other. When it comes to speech, that challenge comes from the AF. Studies have shown that in autism, the AF is thinner than normal, and the thinner it is, the more speech and language challenges there are. Even autistic adults with no obvious speech or language deficits show a thinner AF.

So, if the AF is thinner than average, this would explain why autism poses a challenge in speech. In my case, I would stammer and start over because my Wernicke's area had decided what words I wanted to use, but it had trouble sending them to my Broca's area to put them together in the right way, and then sending them from there to the motor part of my brain to speak or write them.

The result of all this is that in order to speak a sentence fluidly the first time, I often find myself rehearsing a sentence in my head before speaking it, giving the parts of my brain time to put it together before calling upon the motor areas of my brain to express them. According to my wife, I even sometimes move my lips unconsciously, mouthing the words before I speak, as if actually rehearsing them. I also find that I can express myself in writing better than I can through speaking.

In my late teens I could barely carry on an interesting conversation while I was speaking, but I was much better at doing so through text. I had many more friends over the internet than I did in person. My older sister, after having an instant-message conversation with me, noted that I was much more clever, witty, and engaging than I was in person. Having an online texting platform helped my brain figure out to communicate , and then translate that into my social life.

I have thankfully become much better at speaking and conversation, but I haven't forgotten where I came from and the lessons I've learned from it. And hopefully, these lessons can be a benefit to others.

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Moseley, R. L., Correia, M. M., Baren-Cohen, S., Shtyrov, Y., Pulvermüller, F., & Mohr, B. (2016, April 25). Reduced Volume of the Arcuate Fasciculus in Adults with High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Conditions. Retrieved February 16, 2019, from

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