The Little Professor is Compensating for Something: Theory of Mind and Pedantic Speech

“That woman is irritating,” Cara says. “What?” I say. “Why?” “She can’t separate herself from her own knowledge[.] […] She keeps saying things like they’re obvious when they are not, in fact, obvious.” (—Veronica Roth, Allegiant)

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Drawn w/ GIMP. Yes, it’s My Little Pony. Who better to illustrate pedantic speech than Twilight Sparkle?

The inspiration for today’s post comes from… a novel I’m reading, believe it or not.

I’ve finally gotten around to reading Veronica Roth’s Divergent series this week, which my mother has been raving about for years. It’s actually been pretty great! It’s very Young Adult Fiction, so anyone not used to the genre will probably hate the writing style, but the story is gripping, and I’m loving the diversity and dimensionality of the characters. Plus, I have a soft spot for dystopian young adult scifi.

If you’re a Divergent fan, don’t worry; this post is spoiler-free. And if you’re annoyed by this and just want me to get to the point, don’t worry; I won’t take long!

This post is still about autism, I promise.


I blazed through the first two books in the series, Divergent and Insurgent, in a couple of days, and now I’m about halfway through the third book, Allegiant. I noticed something about two of the newest characters that really struck me, and made me think about conversation in a new way.

  • Allegiant character, Zoe: Uses confusing words and concepts commonplace to her without realizing that the people she is talking to would not understand. She assumes that something obvious to her must be objectively obvious. She forgets to consider the perspectives of her audience when she speaks.
  • Allegiant character, Matthew: Uses confusing words and concepts that are commonplace to him, but follows these with clear and concise definitions. Despite being born and raised in a place where these concepts are obvious, and never having lived in a culture where such things were not common knowledge, he has the ability to consider his audience while he is speaking. He intuitively understands which words and phrases his audience would not understand. 

Now, neither “Zoe” nor “Matthew” is autistic. (At least, neither displays autistic traits.) But seeing the dichotomy of these two characters switched on a figurative cartoon light bulb in my head. I think I finally understand one of the reasons why autistic people explain things in such unique ways.

ASD is nicknamed “Little Professor Syndrome” for a reason

Autistics have a tendency to either not explain enough (and use “unnecessarily” complicated words and concepts), or to over-explain every detail. Part of this comes from the fact that autistic people have difficulty intuitively and unconsciously inferring the mental states of the people they’re talking to.

The key words here are intuitively and unconsciously.

Cognitive empathy can be learned. If I sit down and think about it, I can easily predict that a 35-year-old college professor knows what an “internet forum” is, or that the little boy I babysit who loves mobile games already knows what “Candy Crush” is.

But that takes time. In the moment, during the rapid back and forth of conversation, that level of intentional reasoning is far more difficult.

An autistic will often either speak entirely from her own perspective, leaving essential terms undefined, or she will default to explaining everything, even the details and backstory that her audience already knows and understands.

Often, the former applies to children, or autistic adults who have not been frequently and/or overtly criticized for their complex speech patterns (usually, these people are men in scientific or academic fields). The latter category—pedantic over-explanation—most often applies to adults, and especially autistic women, because it is the result of a person becoming aware over time of this difficulty with conversational theory of mind. It’s a natural attempt to compensate.

The “just in case” social strategy

Many autistic adults have grown up in a world where their overly complicated explanations are constantly pointed out and criticized. A world where their audiences routinely ask for explanation of points that the autistics themselves may see as “obvious.”

Over time, an autistic may learn that he cannot accurately predict what his audience does and does not know.

This is especially common in women, who are more heavily and openly critiqued on their social skills, and their use of conversational empathy. This life-long evidence of personal struggle with inferring an audience’s prior knowledge means that the autistic adult may now explain everything “just in case.”

I am especially guilty of this. If a person does not interrupt me to say “I know” during one of my unnecessary over-explanations (which, I’ve discovered, is the case for most polite neurotypicals) I will ramble on 10x longer than I need to, explaining every single inconsequential detail.

And It’s especially interesting, not to mention entertaining, for me to watch when this happen to other people.

Somehow, when I’m just a third-party observer, the unnecessary information becomes glaringly obvious to me, and I just want to interrupt and say, “Stop, it’s OK, she knows what a molecule is!”

My mother and I took a vacation together this past summer, and she enlisted my partner to housesit for the two-weeks we would be away. I remember sitting at the top of the basement stairs, laughing to myself as my mother explained what a fuse box is to a man who had personally rented and cared for five different apartments with fuse boxes. He, the most polite and patient person I have ever met, simply nodded and smiled. I gained a new level of appreciation for what it must be like for him to put up with me when I rush into the study to interrupt his work ten times a day with twenty-minute explanations of things he already understands.

After all, I’m that deadly annoying combination of incessantly chatty and “just in case” clarification. How am I supposed to know whether a person has heard of Bill Gates, or knows what a bonobo is, or understands the difference between biology and microbiology?

If I don’t stop to explain, I inevitably say something that my audience doesn’t understand, and I lose their interest, or worse, seem rude. But when I over-explain, I come off as annoying and condescending!

I can’t infer which things my audience knows and doesn’t know. But I can’t always rely on a person to ask questions when they don’t know a word, or interrupt to stop me from over-explaining.

This is why I love talking with other autistics! We don’t beat around the bush with social games and polite conventions, and it’s so much easier when the person I’m talking to doesn’t hesitate to say, “Yeah, yeah, I know that already. Jeeze.”

Maybe I should start all my conversations with a disclaimer…

“If I’m explaining something obvious, please tell me to stop. If you stay quiet, I’m going to assume that you still don’t understand and I’ll rephrase it again ten more times.”

Oops.


EDIT: I’d like to clarify that I don’t mean to imply this is the only reason for autistic over-explanation. A lot of that can be traced back to impaired central coherence—the brain’s ability to combine details into a “big picture.” Autistics are infamously bad at concision because we see the world in detail. This article is meant to address the social/emotional aspects of pedantic speech, not the underlying cognitive processing.

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32 thoughts on “The Little Professor is Compensating for Something: Theory of Mind and Pedantic Speech

  1. Thanks, Kirsten. Readers have sometimes asked me on my blog for tips for better being able to translate their thoughts into words. I guess that’s a little different angle that what you’re talking about here. But I wonder if you can shed some light on that topic? Perhaps some people with autism struggle to put thoughts into words precisely because they’re not sure how their audience is going to respond?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the comment! That’s an interesting idea, and I think that, to some degree, a big part of the social anxiety that comes from participating in conversation is related to this. Most (arguably, all) autistics have spent their lives in a social world where people do not respond as expected, and where seemingly harmless conversation can inspire animosity in complete strangers. We are often labeled as “rude” and “strange,” without knowing why. I once found a great comic by an autistic author I think captures this experience well (I reblogged it on my tumblr here). Many autistics who would otherwise be naturally outgoing and talkative become withdrawn and anxious because of their learned experiences.

      However, it sounds like what you’re talking about is also a problem with translating thoughts into verbal language. That’s something different. When they (and I) say “translate,” we are being literal. Every autistic is different, but I’ve talked to several other autistics who have the same type of thinking as me, so I assume my experience is not an uncommon one. For me, I think almost entirely in pictures, feelings, and the fleeting, intangible conceptual type of “thought” that isn’t made up of words. I can think in words to some degree, especially on topics I have already worked hard to translate previously, or in simple situations, like narrating my actions. For the most part, though, I have to translate into words when I write, and *especially* when I speak.

      For example, I have a very hard time not only consciously identifying my emotions (usually I identify umbrella categories, like “bad,” and “good,” or I focus only on physical things, like “I feel tired”) but on expressing and explaining my emotions. If a person asks me to explain what I’m feeling, my answer will usually be, “I don’t know.” The way I usually work around this, if I really need to (say, I’m upset, and my partner is trying to figure out why, and help me), is to focus on translating the synesthesia I get with thoughts/feelings instead of the thoughts/feelings themselves. For example, right now I could describe my current emotional state with: Red, nutty, brittle (but in the good way, like leaves, not like cold plastic), expansive but thin/flat, and sharp in some places. If I had to describe how I feel with words right now, I would say, “I feel fine.” (I don’t think I feel either “good” or “bad,” right now, and I am not feeling anything strongly enough to notice it unless I focus, and even then I don’t have a word for how my mind “feels” right now.) Alexithymia is something most autistics share, to some degree, and it’s a great nutshell example of how “translating” mental experience to words is difficult.

      Also, when I’m overloaded and really low on spoons I often have a hard time talking, and sometimes lose speech entirely. If I do talk, I can only use simple words, and can’t really use conversational grammar. I often will still have words in my head, to some degree, but I can’t “make” them come out properly. When it’s really bad, I just have the windows blue screen of death in my mind and I have to shake my head no and wait until I’m feeling better.

      Imagine you’ve just run a triathlon, and you’re so exhausted you can barely move. You can still walk, but you can only take one, very slow, shaky step at a time, and your balance is uncertain, your posture completely compromised. Or maybe you can’t walk at all; you try to lift your leg, then give up and just sit down on the pavement. That’s what it feels like to lose speech.

      It’s like, speaking takes a great amount of focus and effort, because most autistics do not naturally think *in words*, and the translation takes effort. Writing is the same, for many people. Some can speak but can’t write well (my ex boyfriend is one of those autistics). And some, like me, can always write (usually much better than I speak), but sometimes can’t speak. Even when I’m chatty and very verbal, I still struggle to express myself often, or mess up grammatically, because when I speak aloud, I’m still translating my thoughts into words!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Have you seen the articles saying that all autistic brains are not only wired differently from the average person, but also from each other?

    One autistic even commented “Does this possibly explain why I can’t even fit in among other autistic people?

    Everyone, from my mom to my psychiatrist to my therapist, magically expects me to feel better when I’m around other neuroatypical people…yet I find it just as hard to make friends with them as I do with “normal” people…they feel just as fundamentally different from me.”

    If so, that’s pretty sad, I think. We can’t even connect to *each other*.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That makes sense to me, considering that I remember one of the most basic findings of the TMS research I was participating in as a test subject was that autistic people had a ridiculously high rate of neuroplasticity. It implied that autistic brains would be very malleable, less efficient (ever heard, “neurons that fire together, wire together”? the more you use a pathway, the more solidified and simplified it gets; too much neuroplasticity would mean making new pathways constantly instead of improving existing ones), fast-learning, and very unique.

      Though, personally, however different in individual ways we are, I find I always better understand and get along with other autistics. The overarching things we have in common, that separate us from neurotypicals, mean that we can quickly and intuitively connect in a way that takes much more effort with allistics.

      While many autistics are polar opposites (hypersensitive/hyposensitive, less verbal/overly chatty, etc) we still “get it” on a shared level. It’s great to know that the person you’re with already understands why the grocery store lighting is so awful, and wants to find a better place to talk just as much as you do.

      Also, it’s pretty easy to know which “kind” of autistic a person is when I meet them. I love meeting people who are the chatty, infodump types, like me. We immediately recognize our own kind, and it’s just so much fun to be able to have a great machinegun conversation, talking at 100 miles an hour, talking over and interrupting each other constantly with no polite fluff to pad our words. My allistic partner says that watching me have one of these autistic conversations sounds, to him, like we’re just “shouting facts at each other” with no conversation. Whereas, for me, a totally allistic conversation looks like two people weighing down their *actual conversation* with unnecessary smalltalk and fluff, having to waste time on inefficient courtesies and barely touching on any actual information. Because, to me, the whole point of conversation (especially with friends!) is information exchange. My partner says that, to allistics, the point of conversation is to deepen an emotional bond between two people, and the information exchange is either very minor or not important at all.

      Being autistic feels like living in a foreign (allistic) culture. Meeting another autistic feels like encountering someone from my own culture, and I can just be my natural self without worrying about violating cultural norms I barely understand! Haha

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    • I’ve just seen a video re. Temple Grandin’s understanding of autism. I am afraid of what I am about to say for fear of backlash; if we all share a basic similar structure (I.e. Skeleton, brain, transducers/sensors) wouldn’t it make sense that there is a statistical variation present in humanity whereby deviations to the norm are apparent? Thus some transducers (eyes/ears) will be connected slightly differently to the brain and some brain’s white matter will be connected slightly thicker or thinner in parts to others? Likewise, won’t there therefore be people whose brains are vastly different in their basic structure to the normal distribution? Thus, (those with vastly different brains in a statistical minority) there will be groups who better understand each other with similar brain structures to those who are vastly different. Even among a group defined as autistic there will be sufficient differences to guarantee misunderstandings.

      I believe this is where Dr. Grandin’s ideas are headed and which I support. We are all unique and we could learn better to accept our differences and not fear them. It’s as if we need each other to be different and unique within certain parameters.

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  3. “If you stay quiet, I’m going to assume that you still don’t understand and I’ll rephrase it again ten more times.” Exactly! But I’ll try to explain it differently so you’ll get it this time. I’ll even try to make up an allegory to help you. Anything to help me connect with you; to help you understand me.

    Great post. Reblogged.

    Like

    • Hahaha yes, I totally know what you mean! I’ll rephrase the same point, explaining it in different (usually increasingly complex) ways. Then I’ll start pulling out the nonsensical metaphors and similes that seem to make things even more confusing…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Doesn’t it make you feel like you’re speaking a different language sometimes? Like, how could they possibly misinterpret what you said? When I was little I apparently talked in my sleep, but it wasn’t recognizable words. My dad always said it was alien. LOL. I sometimes wonder if that’s what I’m doing again!

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      • Hahaha that’s a good way to put it! I’ll often end up making up increasingly more complex and detailed metaphors in an attempt to be super clear and cover all my bases, but then my audience gets lost in all the silly metaphorical details. I feel like I’m being as simple as possible (aka, breaking down every point as much as possible) yet it’s like I might as well be speaking another language…

        Liked by 1 person

  4. To respond to Chris, as well as the article in general. Recent studies have concluded that the defining characteristic shared by folks on the spectrum vrs the neurotypical (nypical) population is that NT’s share a common basic wiring plan, where as we each have our own idiosyncratic wiring layout. Therefore we are not all the same in our wiring, though we are also all not wired up as the nypical folk are, making our experince of dealing with the world with our unique brains the common experince that we all share.
    The issue of either over defining terms or assuming a shared level of comprehention, has gotten me into trouble in the workplace more times than I can recount.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well said! That’s essentially what I tried to say in my own reply to Chris (though mine was about 10x less concise than yours, unsurprisingly). It often feels like the reason I can so easily connect with other neurodivergent people (autistic, adhd, or otherwise) is because we are all so different from the dominant, neurotypical culture. Stephen Shore compares it to how immigrants feel while trying to integrate into their new country’s culture. Even if a person has been living in a country for most of their life, it’s still a joy to encounter someone from their culture of origin, and it’s easier to make friends with other immigrants who understand the difficulty of cultural integration, even if they come from a different place. I always thought that metaphor was a good one. I definitely do feel like allism is a different culture from autism. It’s always so amazing to go to places like anime and tech conventions where the autism rate is so incredibly high, and I’m immersed in my own culture for a few days, haha.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. I find I tend to over explain all the time, as does my oldest son. Yet my youngest son is the opposite and assumes everyone knows everything that he does. I hadn’t thought of it in any way other than just a part of them, so I really enjoyed reading this perspective on it!

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  6. Not mentioned was the inability to discern the audience’s lack of interest in whatever topic was being expounded upon. One person I know would tilt his head to one shoulder and begin to snore, and another would simply say, “The horse (as in beating a dead horse) is down.”.

    Like

    • Haha, yes, definitely. It took me YEARS to learn that I wasn’t able to read disinterest. Even now, I sometimes forget to watch for it and get carried away. I much prefer people who are open and obvious about their disinterest. It’s not like I’m talking *despite* a person’s boredom, it’s that I don’t realize they’re bored!

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  7. Thanks so much. I love this article and comment thread. I find that using metaphors helps me communicate complex ideas and still be understood. lol.. though my close friends and family get a little tired of endless metaphors. I am trying very hard to learn to identify when I am repeating myself, which I tend to do when explaining something that is important to me. Often, I don’t even realize I’m doing it, if someone doesn’t tell me. It helps when friends and family know they can just tell me.

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    • Ahhh, same for me! I end up trying to communicate and explain myself through metaphor and allegory *so* often. Even worse, I’m *really bad* at coming up with good, clear metaphors! So I end up making 2 or 3 bad metaphors in a row, trying to find one that fits the situation, and my audience actually understands…Haha 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Ha, I’ve noticed this too! It’s really interesting since I find aspies to be “tree thinkers” (focus on details and small components) versus “forest thinkers” (focus on gestalt or big picture). When you guys talk about subject we hear about many (many…) small components and not the nutshell version or a brief overview of the topic. I wonder if the use of metaphor is the attempt to create and communicate a nutshell concept. Of course, note my use of a visually- based nature theme in discussing thought process 😉

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      • I like your tree vs forest thinking metaphor. I use the same thing to explain what “central coherence” is (the ability to “see the forest” without missing it “for the trees”). And yes, I believe the autistic reliance on (usually abnormal, “weird”) metaphor is our attempt to compensate for a lack of central coherence, and inability to summarize points. At least, that’s definitely why I do it, and it seems to fit with the other autistics I’ve spoken to about this.

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    • Thanks! It’s funny, I realized this about myself years ago, but I still have such a hard time controlling it. I *know* that I don’t need to give every single point of backstory, but I just can’t help it!

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      • Yeah, social habits are hard to control! I get embarrassed if I explain and the other person ignores me or gets blank-faced (which is most times), so now I’ve sort of gone into the other extreme and refuse to explain *anything*, because the whole situation feels so uncomfortable that I just get locked up. And that’s even more frustrating to other people than saying too much. It’s really hard to strike a balance. I guess because both saying too much and saying too little are signs of nervousness, and it’s near-impossible for someone with ASD to not be nervous around other people?

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      • I read an article a few years ago about a Scotsman who was traveling the world, visiting all the towns named “Aberdeen”. He described himself as the kind of person who, if asked for the time of day, would proceed to tell you how to build a watch. I sometimes borrow that joke to put my listeners at ease.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. One thing I’ve noticed in having conversations with people on the spectrum is that subjects are usually information- based and that there is less reciprocity or back and forth in the conversation. In other words, the person with autism dominates conversation with information and it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. Now, if I start volleying associated information into the conversation, it seems to work and my conversational partner on the spectrum will pick up on and respond in an associated manner. I see many people with aspergers in particular engaging in this type of conversation format with each other, both in content and process. However… neurotypical people do not engage this way much at all, following a different set of process “rules” and many other forms of content. They would never just throw in their 2 cents- that’s considered interrupting. Instead they wait for the cue to participate… which may not happen. Because NTs expect and cue for so much back and forth, they are also getting tremendous amount of information about the person’s viewpoint and interest and can incorporate that and shift the conversation as needed. They are also analyzing body language, gaze shift, facial expression, intonation etc. For neurotypical people 93% of communication is NONverbal! I think it might actually be the opposite for people with aspergers especially, with 93% verbal. So much confusion ensues. And then of course I find that neurotypical people want to “bond” over exchanging experiences and observations that they may have in common. They may enjoy exchanging information as well, but they often mix it up with other social-emotional data.

    Just sharing some thoughts and experiences here… proving I am neurotypical. Mostly 😉

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  9. Pingback: Audience… It’s Complicated | Balance Challenge

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