Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Patterns and Language

I started to write a response to a post about language on the Ballastexistenz blog, but it got long enough so that I decided to put it here instead. Amanda wrote that she used the phrase "this week" without really meaning to refer to that precise unit of time:

I didn’t mean this week. I meant, this-arbitrary-measurement-of-chunk-of-time-longer-than-a-day.

I could’ve said, the past few weeks, this month, the past few days, last month… those are all phrases in my repertoire for that kind of thing, and they pop out interchangeably.

This is, I suppose, one of the hazards of using and learning language by pattern. Especially when I’m tired, I’ll know which phrases “sound right” together, and “go right” together, but it’s really, really easy to forget to check them against what I’m actually meaning. So “some kind of chunk of time” simply becomes substituted with any chunk of time. A particular topic area gets substituted with its opposite without noticing, because both are connected in some way in the pattern system in my head.

And my speech seems irreparably that way, patterns devoid of internal meaning for the most part, or only tangentially tied to it.

Describing time can indeed be difficult for those of us who don't naturally sort it into exact linear segments in memory. Like Amanda, I've often talked about something that happened "last week" and then realized that it was two weeks ago, or three weeks.

I wouldn't describe that as a pattern fault, though. It's more that the language isn't precisely matched to the intended meaning because of shortcomings in the language itself. We all (autistic or otherwise) have to map our personal experiences onto a language that can be very lacking in precision, depending on what we are talking about.

Supposedly, the native peoples of northern Canada have hundreds of words for snow in their languages. I don't know if that's actually true or if it's just an Internet legend, but it does illustrate how experiences shape the development of language. If visual-spatial thinkers were in the majority, we might have a very different language, with specific words for things like "a chunk of time, somewhat recent, more than a day ago."

But we don't, so we just have to get our meaning across as best we can with the available words, just as if we came from a tribe that perceived different kinds of snow—we'd have to struggle to find words to describe them effectively in English.

To put it another way, being unable to find precise words to describe something, and using some other phrase as a substitute, doesn't necessarily mean that there is a defect in, or damage to, the brain's speech-generating circuitry. It also doesn't necessarily mean that patterns or scripts are being used without understanding. Sometimes there just isn't an adequate word in the language to describe a particular object or idea, and it might not be practical or feasible to take the time to pause and search one's brain for a precise set of words to approximate the intended meaning as nearly as possible, because there is too much else going on in real time.

I don't believe that this happens only to autistics. I think it's more likely that everyone is at a loss for words sometimes, just because of the inherent limitations of words, but because our prevailing cultural scripts and the commonly used words in our language are more closely matched to the experiences of the majority, the pop-culture scripting that's often done by non-autistics (such as using sports metaphors or chattering about something that a celebrity did) is seen as normal.

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  • I've got to agree. Language, as Burroughs said, is a virus. We all have automatic phrase generators that are stocked with words and phrases that come to us from the outside. What's in stock determines what we say, but we often know that what we are saying is a poor expression of what we are thinking. I'm not autistic, but I frequently say things that I don't really believe, just because those words happened to be in my mouth at the time.

    That said, my son, who is autistic, seems to have more difficulty using his automatic phrase generator to his satisfaction that many of his peers. He'll start a conversation with, "Yesterday,... the other day,... before,.... that other time,... a few days ago,... ummm, there was this thing that happened before..." The conversation could have gone forward fine with any of the temporal identifiers in his list, but he is dissatisfied with them.

    Also, he will often say the exact opposite of what he means. For example, "It's really cold," when he wants to say, "It's really hot."

    These things sound similar to what Amanda is describing. The person from Processing in Parts had a really good description of similar things.

    My uneducated guess is that it might be an issue of how the phrase generator is accessed.

    By Blogger VAB, at 1:53 PM  

  • The Inuit have the same amount of stems for snow-related words as we do.

    However, the way those languages work, you can add these stems up to make a virtually infinite number of total snow-related-words, just like i English we can make a virtually infinite number of snow-related-sentences.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 2:46 PM  

  • This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

    By Anonymous susan, at 3:23 PM  

  • VAB: On the question of what causes people to say the exact opposite of what they mean, it might be indecision over the preferred wording, such as whether to say "it's not cold enough" or "it's too hot." At least, that's how it seems to me when I do it.

    Anonymous: Thanks for the info!

    Susan: I don't allow commenters to use this blog as a platform for personal attacks by John Best and his pals. Take it somewhere else.

    By Blogger abfh, at 4:49 PM  

  • The business about time (I usually describe myself as "lost in time," since that's how I feel -- and probably appear -- when I try to express time in language) can be a problem when trying to communicate with a doctor.

    By Anonymous Jane Meyerding, at 6:06 PM  

  • That said, my son, who is autistic, seems to have more difficulty using his automatic phrase generator to his satisfaction that many of his peers.

    That's really the difference.

    Someone on Lady Bracknell's blog pointed out recently that one of the problems disabled people have in getting our experiences taken seriously, is that nearly all experiences of disabled people are just amplified versions of something everyone experiences.

    But, as someone pointed out, having the experience of having her eyes dilated for an eye exam does not mean that she knows what it's like to be blind.

    And having an occasional phrase go awry is not the same as being actually incapable or near-incapable of not-awry phrases, or even the same as having lots of phrases go awry.

    By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 7:01 PM  

  • First post here. I’m a parent of an autistic child and occasionally participate in a support board for parents. Amanda frequently contributes to our forums, and though I don’t have the same visceral, negative reaction to her that you do, I do sometimes wonder if the autism that she claims to have is really the same disorder that my child has. At times, I’ve also wondered if she’s either been misdiagnosed and, I admit, I have wondered about some sort of fraud or at least disingenuousness.

    In the past, I’ve just chocked it up to the vagaries of the autism diagnosis – that so many conditions are all grouped under the dame diagnostic category. My own child is four years old, has functional language, no obvious stims, age appropriate self care skills, and an IQ that tests within the normal range, placed in a regular education classroom and yet is still clearly autistic to anyone with knowledge of the disorder. She has, in fact, ‘autistic disorder’ (not one of the lesser PDDs, at least according to the ADOS). Despite her diagnosis, she seems to be very different than the children that I’ve read about on this blog and in other places and very different than A.B., too. There are so many different presentations, I’m not sure I can immediately discount the validity of someone else’s diagnosis based on my own personal experiences.

    Perhaps calling all of these very different conditions ‘autism’ is a bad idea and contributes to these viscous disagreements about who should speak for who and how one should seek to help their autistic children. I used to browse the WP forums seeking input from older “autistics” so that I could catch a glimpse into the future for my children, but I quickly came to realize that many, if not the majority, of the folks who post on that board are probably not actually autistic, at least in the way that my child is autistic. I’m sure parents of kids who are more severely challenged than mine, however, feel the same way about my child.

    Sorry for the length of this ramble. I’m struggling to cope with this diagnosis and what it means – it’s still new. As an aside, would you recommend aggressive, biomedical interventions for a young child, such as mine, who seems to be making good progress on their own and who seems to be not as severely affected as many other children with the disorder?

    By Anonymous claire, at 7:25 PM  

  • I didn't know abfh had a visceral negative reaction to me, claire.

    By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 7:35 PM  

  • I certainly don't... perhaps Claire was addressing someone else who commented on this post? (There was a comment of that nature posted here earlier, which I deleted because it was a personal attack that had nothing to do with the subject of my post.)

    And no, I would not recommend "aggressive, biomedical interventions" because the science does not support them (for more on that, I recommend reading Kevin Leitch and Autism Diva).

    Because children change so much as they grow and develop, it's very difficult to predict what any young child's future will be like. Trying to judge a person's real-life strengths and weaknesses based only on Internet posts is also quite problematical.

    By Blogger abfh, at 8:01 PM  

  • What they're finding, is there seems to be a lot of surface variability in autistic people, but a lot of core similarities in perception. It's almost like the perceptual organization can be one way, but the way it plays out in each person's development can look radically different on the surface.

    Interestingly the surface differences aren't always the biggest differences. I get compared a lot to people that I have virtually nothing in common with. And then the people I actually have something in common with... sometimes I get compared to and sometimes I don't. Like Anne C. who has a ton in common with me, probably looks nothing like me on the surface, you would peg us as totally different. And Cal Montgomery on the other hand I have a lot in common with and I've been mistaken for her.

    So it's the under-the-surface stuff that counts and it's not always as simple as it looks to see who's the same as what and different from what.

    By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 9:26 PM  

  • It's kind of- ironic? that there had been a lot of discusion about taking care about how one uses language, and here is a new thread about how difficult that care can really be, and not just "in the thick of it," but even when writing and posting.

    Both interesting lessons, especially in a world built on words.

    By Blogger Joeymom, at 10:37 PM  

  • (This is a rather rambly/disjointed comment, but it contains a bunch of points I want to make; hopefully it is coherent enough)

    In high school I knew a girl who had spent her early years in Israel; her first language was Hebrew, her second language (which she spoke quite fluently) was English. One day she was talking about how there were some fairly basic things that could be expressed simply in one of the languages she knew, but not in another. At one point she referred to a particular Hebrew word to describe an emotion that did not translate to English, but that she could definitely identify as being a real emotion. This made me think of the notion of human diversity in general; just as there are all different kinds of people, perceiving different parts and aspects of reality, there are also a lot of different languages, each with its own strengths at describing certain parts and aspects of reality.

    Language in general cannot possibly express everything there is about reality, and I agree that many people probably end up "at a loss for words" at times. But I also think that it is important to acknowledge differences in language processing and production when they exist, and given the overall diversity of humanity, it is no surprise that some people (and groups) struggle more or less with linguistic construction. And some people have an easier time with written language than spoken language (and vice versa).

    Regarding "types of autism" and surface differences and such: one thing to remember (if you're a parent of a small child in particular) is that the autistic adults and teens you are likely to encounter online are older than your child, and therefore they've had a lot more time to grow and develop. There really isn't any way to determine whether a given three-year-old and a given twenty-five-year-old have "the same autism" as one another; the life stages are just too different.

    I do not agree that arguments ensue as a result of autism being too broad a category, but rather, due to a lack of understanding that autistics are a very heterogeneous group. I imagine that some people have tremendous difficulty grasping the concept that autistics can be so different from one another and yet still all be autistic, but a helpful analogy here might be that of gender.

    All women are women, but you certainly can't assume that any two women are going to have the exact same personality and skill set. But people used to assume just that back in the days prior to women's suffrage (and even up until fairly recently, and even *now* in some areas of the world); femaleness itself has had the medical model inappropriately applied to it in the past, and women who haven't fit traditional feminine stereotypes have been accused of "not being real women" the same way some autistics are accused of not being "real autistics" because *they* don't fit particular stereotypes. I think that some people probably believe that the stereotypes *are* autism, and that if you include people who don't fit them you are "diluting" the term and making it useless -- but bringing up the gender analogy again, this same logic would seem to suggest that women who don't have children, or who work outside the home, or who get engineering degrees should not be called women, lest *that* term become useless.

    By Blogger AnneC, at 12:49 AM  

  • Also, adding onto what Amanda said regarding core similarities in perception (despite a different-appearing developmental manifestation) -- I recently got to spend a few hours with a friend's 4.5-year-old autistic son. This boy was totally nonverbal at the time I met him (I think he's since said one or two words), prone to flapping, and he spent a lot of time trying to turn the lights and faucets on and off. There is no way you would have mistaken this child for NT.

    And he made sense to me. I could see him looking at and exploring various objects in the apartment and reacting to them in ways that were extremely familiar. He noticed the same kinds of objects (and parts of objects) in the room that I would have, and he explored the overall territory in the same way I do (that is, making a thorough "sweep" of the area, following the perimeter and examining a lot of individual small objects along the way). At one point he went into the bedroom and looked up at the ceiling fan; I turned it on for him at that point and he was *very* happy about that. We also engaged in a kind of object exchange; I periodically handed him stuff like flashlights and little light-up bouncy balls, and he would accept these and play with the switches and mechanisms for a while.

    I would never claim to be able to "know exactly what was going on in his head" or anything like that; only he knows that. But there were definitely things I recognized in his overall demeanor and approach to objects and sensory inputs, and his mom made some comments afterward to the effect of that she could see commonalities between me and her kid and our ways of responding to things. Even though I am generally able to say words (whether they're actually connected to what I want to express is another story!) and even though my diagnoses have been Asperger's and PDD-NOS as opposed to "Autistic Disorder".

    I strongly suspect that if people make a concerted effort to start looking in the right places for similarities in autistic cognition, instead of dwelling on surface features and "functioning levels", these similarities would become a lot more profoundly obvious.

    By Blogger AnneC, at 2:17 AM  

  • Saying that an autistic aduklt cannot be autistic because they don't present in exactly the same way as an autistic child is like saying a non autistic adult can't be non autistic because they don't present as a non autistic child.

    By Anonymous bullet, at 5:31 AM  

  • Agreed about the age thing. At the age of four, I was enrolled in a preschool that called my parents because I seemed to do just fine on my own but emitted some kind of high-pitched shriek if any kids got near me. My mother came into the room and I was wiggling my fingers so she wiggled her fingers back. I also did not appear to understand the difference between indoor and outdoor people (they had people generally assigned to one or the other for the day) so they had to give up and make me an indoor-outdoor person. The other children played games together, I didn't, and I walked right through their games oblivious as to what they were doing. There was one girl who tried to befriend me at one point and was told explicitly by the other children not to. I can't imagine a preschool in this day and age that wouldn't see signs of autism in that little bit of information alone (nor can I see, today, a casual layperson reading that description online or seeing me at the time without at least wanting to mention it as a possibility), but in 1984, while concerned enough to call my parents, they did not bring that word up or probably even know what it meant.

    By Blogger ballastexistenz, at 9:18 AM  

  • I am an Aspergers adult woman and let me tell you.....I am verrrrry different now than when I was a little girl. The school system tried many times to get me tracked out of mainstream and my parents would not hear of it. My parents were not interested in having a disabled child and took legal intervention to get me a decent education. These schools were not trying to educate me.....I was a burden to them. I ended up in a school for the gifted when all was said and done.

    Also, I do not look autistic. I am six foot tall, I have long sleek hair and good teeth and skin. My mother was a beauty queen and my father a military cryptographer. My father is also a savant and probably Aspergers too. He owns being a genius but denies Aspergers exists. I was a skinny awkward girl with a monotone voice, who repeated herself over and over again. Um, not anymore.....

    I have some of my fathers abilities and work as an auctioneer. Echolalia is very useful to auctioneers.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:28 PM  

  • GO AWAY AMANDA! You are EVERYWHERE. Why are you writing Susan and signing yourself anonymous? Afraid? ~Cyndi

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 9:41 PM  

  • Cyndi;

    Rest assured that I am not Amanda. I do not have a Google account or a blog and this is why I use the anonymous feature.

    Actually, now that you mention it.....I think your reaction does scare me.

    To the blog owner: if my posts are not welcome here I will abstain in the future as it is not my intent to cause offense or trespass on your blog.

    ~Sarah..... using the anonymous feature

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:28 PM  

  • Cyndi: The only person who can tell anyone to go away on my blog is me. Got it?

    Sarah: You're welcome to comment here, and I don't find your remarks offensive -- although I do wonder what you meant about not looking autistic. If there's a stereotype about autistics being short and having bad teeth, this is the first I've heard of it. (BTW, all the autistics in my family are medium height or tall and have no problems with their teeth.)

    By Blogger abfh, at 12:03 AM  

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