The Autism Accent
I had never heard of the autism accent until I heard someone on Netflix’s ‘Love On The Spectrum’ mention it. It was one of those things where the second I heard it, so many moments of my life clicked into place. I know a lot of autistic people bristle at the puzzle piece symbol (and I get it.) But you know that moment when you’re close to finishing a puzzle and start to worry you’re missing a piece? Then suddenly a piece you thought didn’t fit makes sense or you find the missing piece stuck to your sock. It’s a glorious, satisfying moment when you lock it in place. That’s what it felt like – a piece of my brain puzzle had locked into place and shed a little more light on me.
Many people have misperceptions about autistic speech patterns. They think we all speak in a flat monotone and don’t use the right inflections. However, a reminder that autism is a spectrum, so while some autistic people are monotone all the time, or just when they’re tired, that doesn’t hold true for all autistics. To be clear, there is no one “autism accent.” We are just prone to certain speech habits that can result in a (weirdly) wide range of individual language habits.
Can I Blame This on My Dad Too?
I’ve been aware there’s something different about how I talk for as long as I can remember. When I was little, I remember being really susceptible to a Southern accent. I always figured it was because my dad grew up in Northern Florida and never seemed to lose the accent despite 25 years on the West Coast. However, I grew up two states away having intermittent phone calls with my dad so this theory didn’t really hold much water. I couldn’t have developed his same accent but I did seem to mindlessly parrot Southern accents I heard; whether it be on TV or in person.
I know a lot of autistic children and ADHD children can find themselves in trouble or being called rude for such behavior. My [undiagnosed ADHD] mom, had similar mindless accent-mimicking abilities that got her in trouble growing up. Her trouble to my benefit, she didn’t scold me for it. She’d simply bring it to my awareness if I was doing it in an inappropriate setting so I’d know to reign it in.
Over the years, I’ve noticed my accent shifting or speech patterns changing. I’m not talking about my speech patterns and vocabulary changing as I get older, I mean complete shifts based on who I’m exposed to.
During my senior year of high school, we went on a family vacation to Hawai’i where I made friends with two girls from Chicago. We spent the whole week hanging out as high school kids stuck on family vacation tend to do and by the end of it, I had absorbed their accent (a for Chicago emphasis.) I returned to Seattle where everywhere I went, someone would hear my ‘accent and ask me where I was from.
I managed to shake this accent by the time I made it to college. Only to make friends with a number of other athletes who were on the opposite side of the skin-color spectrum from me and were fluent in AAVE (African American Vernacular English.) No, I didn’t use racially inappropriate terms or become someone from Malibu’s Most Wanted but I did feel my speech patterns shift in a way that diiiiiiiiidn’t quite match the (very white) suburb I grew up in.
Binging Myself a New Accent
What keeps it interesting is it doesn’t even take an accent-emersed vacation or years-long friendships to change my autistic accent. As expected, any time I watch something with a Southern accent I will likely slip into it and it just feels easier to talk that way. Sometimes I can slip back out of it easily, other times I try to switch out of it but end up semi-stuck – slipping in and out of it on accident; much to the bemusement of my fiancé.
More than the momentary Southern switch, binge-watching can sometimes shift my accent for days or even weeks. Anything I’ve binged watched for a couple of days, I’m likely to pick up some of the vocabulary and speech patterns. Sometimes I hear something come out and wonder where it came from and get to play a fun game with myself of tracing it back to the source.
This got mildly awkward and particularly exhausting when I binged ‘Girls Incarcerated’. My autistic brain loved the rhythm and delivery many of the girls spoke with and I would catch myself slipping into it. I was aware of how ridiculous it sounded on me so had to be mindful to mask and not slip into it around other people. Like a guilty pleasure, I’d allow myself spurts of it at home to get it out of my system. It’s probably good there hasn’t been a season three.
A Collection of Accents
Living in Israel has led to a rapidly and ever-evolving autism accent. Here I am not only surrounded by the local Israeli (both Hebrew and Arabic) accents but those of all the other immigrants as well. British, South African, New York Jewish, French, Russian, and so many more.
The English-speaking immigrants all have their own collective language that is also wildly not collective. We throw in Hebrew words as we learn them or decide we like them better or simply because we like how they sound. Our English slowly becomes Israeli-English, where we think we sound very American until we are back in America and suddenly make no sense to people.
This has resulted in people regularly asking about my accent, saying I have an unusual accent, and me no longer even really knowing what will come out when. The spicy brain – always full of surprises.
Research on the Autism Accent
While many autistic people have talked about this experience, there has also been some interesting research on autistic speech patterns.
One study found that 83% of autistic children raised in England with non-English mothers acquired their mother’s accent. Their non-autistic siblings and other non-autistic children who were brought up in the same circumstances only acquired the mother’s (non-English) accent at a rate of 12.5%. This goes to show that language development for autistic children is less influenced by their peers and surroundings than neurotypical children.
Autistic people are also prone to echolalia, the repetition of spoken words or sounds. It could be how they sound or the mouth feel when you say them but it’s often mindless and can sometimes feel compulsive. Other times, the sound is just stuck in your head or is hilarious for unexplainable reasons. Many autistic people as well as people with ADHD have large chunks of songs, movies, or TV shows memorized down to the pitch and tone. I believe these habits are what combine to create the autism accent.
Autism Accent or ADHD Accent?
Autistic people are not the only neurodivergents prone to copying accents. Many people with ADHD also frequently mimic accents, sometimes referring to it as a wandering accent. These chameleon-like habits may be born out of an attempt to fit in better socially by mirroring who we’re interacting with.
What about you, are you a chameleon? Do people grill you about your accent all the time? Tell me your autism accent stories in the comments!