It’s not uncommon for autistics to talk out loud about things that come to mind. There are different situations in which this might happen. Sometimes it’s just a matter of echoing written input, such as when a shopper walking through the supermarket glances down at the list of groceries to buy and says “Apples,” or whatever the next item is. That can be a useful way of staying focused on a sequential task. Talking to oneself can also help in dealing with anxiety and disturbing emotions. For instance, if there’s a particularly nasty crime on the TV news, a viewer might try not to think about it but later end up blurting out “Murder” in an agitated tone. A third category of self-talk consists of the odd things that pop up in one’s consciousness for no apparent reason. Maybe a person says “Wings” without having any images in mind; the word might just as easily refer to angels, birds, airplanes, insects, or fried chicken.
There’s a stigma in Western culture against talking to oneself; anyone who does it is likely to be perceived as having mental problems. As a result, many of us work hard to suppress any stray vocalizations when others are around, even if doing so leaves us feeling more anxious. We don’t want to end up on the receiving end of worried or pitying glances from strangers, just before they quickly avert their gaze and walk away feeling glad that they’re not crazy people like us who ought to be on a shrink’s couch.
Without passing judgment on the attitudes involved in this scenario, I’ll simply note that in recent history there were many well-respected people who paid good money to sit on an analyst’s couch and explore the contents of their random thoughts. Classical psychotherapy has lost much of its appeal since our culture became convinced that there’s a pill for every problem; but about a half-century ago, it was widely believed that the most effective way to deal with feelings of anxiety or depression was to spend many hours talking with a psychotherapist about what might be causing those feelings in the unconscious mind. In some upper-class cliques, where the financial cost of being in therapy for years wasn’t an issue, having an analyst was even considered fashionable for a while. Guests at fancy cocktail parties would chat about how their therapy sessions went.
One of the things people did on the analyst’s couch was to free-associate. This process consisted of being encouraged to talk about whatever came to mind. Often they needed some coaxing to do this because it didn’t come naturally. The analyst would then discuss with them what significance their words and thoughts might have with regard to the particular issues that had been troubling them.
From this perspective, one might say that when we talk to ourselves, there’s a potential for understanding to be gained. The random things that we sometimes find ourselves saying, even though they may seem silly or embarrassing to us, come from the same unconscious sources that classical psychotherapy looked upon as a rich source of insight. Like dreams, they give us a view into deeper levels of the psyche.
Over the past few months I’ve sometimes found myself saying out loud, as if about to tell an old-fashioned story, “Once upon a time…”
I don’t know where this might have come from, but it’s interesting to speculate on what it might mean. Do I have something significant to tell the world? As I grow older, am I taking on the role of a wise elder with the responsibility to pass on our shared knowledge to the next generation? Maybe I’m starting to sense changes in humanity’s collective unconscious, the first stirrings of a new story that’s about to be told on a grand scale.
I guess I’ll just have to wait until the page turns to discover how it goes.