I spent a lot of time in chatrooms as a kid. As soon as we got a computer in the mid-90’s, I was obsessed with it. There were whole entire worlds in that box, and I could sit at the screen for hours exploring them. Typing what I wanted to say felt easier than speaking — a messy process ripe with accidents and missed opportunities for me.
I never felt like I could express what I wanted to with my mouth, because I got too overwhelmed by emotion and action. Everything happened all at once and as soon as I caught up, it was over, and I hadn’t said what I wanted to.
But online, things were different. Messages were permanent — I could study them, think about them, and formulate the response I wanted. As I grew up, I started expressing my feelings almost exclusively in poetry and journaling.
When I had to have a difficult conversation with someone, I wrote them a letter. Writing was a thing I could understand and master; speech was chaos, and in-person chats often felt like holding on for dear life and hoping to God I was saying what I wanted to say.
For years in my 20’s, I travelled or lived far away from people I loved, and would keep in touch with all of them via text. I had constantly open lines of communication with partners and friends on my phone. I fell in love over text. It was like these people were there in my life; I told them everything in real-time. They knew my thoughts and inner world better than the people I lived with.
Many neurotypicals dismiss texting as an inferior method of communication, but for those of us who live behind a social mask in order to navigate the world, messaging can be far deeper and richer than our face-to-face interactions. I was only ever able to handle social interaction with the help of alcohol and substances, which caused 15 years of damage to my life.
Since I returned home, got sober, and started the journey of healing and understanding my neurodivergent brain, I’ve turned back to the online communities I loved as a kid. I am once again an Extremely Online person, and all my friends live in my phone.
I’ve found communities of people who love the things I love, who relate to my experiences, and also enjoy speaking almost exclusively through text. The internet is a haven where I can express the self I know in my head in a way I can’t IRL.
This is a common experience for people who struggle with social communication. A study at the University of Nottingham found several reasons why the internet might be more comfortable for ND brains:
Text-based forms of communication give us much more control over the message we are putting out. We can take time to craft our responses, read over and edit them before we hit send, and control the level of involvement we have in conversations.
If we’re feeling overwhelmed, we can simply ignore messages or turn off our devices in a way we can’t when a conversation is happening face-to-face. We also have the option of “lurking” in group chats, rather than feeling like we need to speak and respond when we are participating in group discussions IRL.
Sometimes it takes neurodivergent brains longer to process things, and texts give us that time. We can stare at a message as long as we want and take the time we need to organize our thoughts to respond. Messages are also permanent, so we can go back and reference something if we forgot what was said or feel like we misunderstood.
There is also a distance from emotion involved, which makes processing a lot easier. If we’re having an argument via text, we are shielded from the other person’s emotions in a way that makes it a lot easier to express ourselves, especially for people who have a high amount of emotional empathy and often take on the feelings of others involuntarily.
Texting gives us time to work through our own strong emotions of anger or sadness so we don’t say things in the moment that we will regret.
The written word is not tainted by memory, emotion, or misunderstanding as much as spoken word can be. You write it out. It’s clear. When you struggle with things like working memory or organization, having something written out is a blessing and often, necessary.
Texting can be helpful when struggling with tone, too: if someone says something sarcastic that you don’t understand through text, a simple, “what do you mean?” is a lot easier to text than it is to say to someone’s face.
People are used to tone being lost in text, so asking for clarifications in that area is more expected online. This can be an advantage for people who often take things literally or struggle with sarcasm. We can also use signifiers like /s (for sarcasm) and /j (for joking) to make our intentions more clear.
Neurodivergent people often move through the real world camouflaging our authentic selves in order to survive socially. On the internet, we can express who we really are, and present the person we know ourselves to be inside, rather than the mask we put on (which isn’t always voluntary — it’s often an automatic response).
Many neurodivergent people struggle with facial expressions or body language being misread, but this isn’t an issue online, where you can use emojis and gifs to express the emotions you want. The internet provides us with a way to be seen as who we really are in our heads.
In an overwhelming world, the written word gives me peace. It is a thing I can wrap my head around and chew on for a while. To say that face-to-face conversation is superior and you can’t know someone solely through the internet is to see the world through a strictly neurotypical lens. Not all of us communicate well that way, and we are not lesser for it.
Neurodivergent people are constantly taught to adjust our communication styles to fit in, to learn how to use eye contact and make good small talk. We are always reaching — why don’t any neurotypicals reach back? If you want to get to know me, then come meet me where I thrive — online.
A version of this essay was originally published on Patreon.