Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Friday, November 30, 2007

On Metaphor and Culture

Autistic people often are described as having significant deficits in the ability to understand figurative language and symbolic representations. The professional literature and the popular media have characterized autistics as extremely literal-minded, sometimes to the point of being incapable of understanding the most basic metaphors without extensive remedial education. Folk sayings and slang expressions often confuse autistics.

As noted by Bev in a recent post on the Asperger Square 8 blog, however, scripted language is a form of metaphor. Scripted language—that is, the use of phrases borrowed from another setting (such as favorite lines from movies or TV shows) is extremely common among autistics. If you visit an Internet forum in the autistic community, you're likely to find a mix of quotes from Tolkien and Heinlein, lines from Star Wars and Dr Who, computer analogies that encompass everything from the workings of the human brain to simple daily life activities, rebellious lyrics from various anti-establishment musicians, video game references, and much more, all bubbling cheerfully away in a richly creative anarchic stew.

So what's causing the confusion here? Why are autistics likely to have trouble understanding popular sayings, and how did mainstream society go so far wrong in believing that autistics lacked the capacity for abstract thought?

Well, I'd put it like this—to understand a metaphor correctly, one must first understand the culture to which it belongs. Metaphors, and the ability to interpret them, do not exist in a vacuum. Bev's post addresses this point (metaphorically) by linking to a summary of the Star Trek episode Darmok, in which Picard's Enterprise encounters a group of aliens who speak entirely in metaphors taken from the cultural saga of their race. Although the universal translator on the Enterprise can render the literal meaning of their words, no useful communication is possible without knowing the context.

Because speech does not come as easily to autistics as it does to others, we often try to compensate by analyzing words and their possible intended meanings in detail, as Bev also has described. This causes us to see ambiguities in commonly used phrases and, sometimes, to become confused by them.

Many of today's folk sayings have their origins in a pre-industrial society that no longer exists. For example, the phrase "make hay while the sun shines" doesn't mean much of anything unless you first understand that a farmer must cut hay on a clear day, so that it will not get wet and spoil, and that villagers in the past who failed to gather sufficient quantities of hay to feed their livestock over the winter were quite likely to starve.

A non-autistic person who was not in the habit of analyzing the meaning of every sentence would simply file such a saying away in his or her mind, upon first hearing it, as an unfamiliar phrase. He or she probably would not ask what it meant and would not take any action based on it. After hearing it a few more times, in various situations, the person eventually would learn its usage (while still being unaware of its origin) from context.

However, an autistic who heard this phrase for the first time probably would try to reason out the intended meaning and, not being familiar with its history, might reasonably conclude that he or she had just been asked to go to a farm and cut some hay because the work would be pleasant on such a nice sunny day, or something of the sort. Far from reflecting a lack of imagination and analysis, this misunderstanding actually would be a consequence of applying more imagination and analysis than the circumstances required.

On the other side of the cultural/linguistic divide, non-autistics often fail to understand the metaphorical nature of autistics' use of scripted language because they haven't had enough conversations of this kind to learn the context. Autistics are a small minority, and most people, no matter how well-intentioned, just aren't going to talk with us enough to get a good grasp of how we use language. As a result, an ugly stereotype has developed that characterizes autistics as little more than robots or tape recorders, repeating phrases randomly with no intelligent thought.

Cross-cultural communication is always fraught with the potential for misunderstanding, even under the best of circumstances. When the majority group makes the arrogant assumption that it is intellectually superior, that potential increases exponentially. Andrea just posted an excellent list of potential pitfalls in cross-cultural relationships; you may want to take a look at it and think about the implications for a while!

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  • Out, Out damned spot... pardon while I am repeating phrases randomly with no intelligent thought. (In regards to That stereotype.)

    Excellent post!

    By Blogger Patrick, at 1:54 PM  

  • While I still can't incorporate this entire post, I knew I had to come back to it to try.

    When Ben was three years old, I KNEW he was a visual learner, because that's how I taught him language. A "visionary", I thought. I never knew the word held such negative connotations until I looked up the meaning. I will show the antonym first.

    —Antonyms 1. practical.

    Hidden in the definition is a "truth" that must have slipped past the "civitas" censors:

    1. given to or characterized by fanciful, not presently workable, or unpractical ideas, views, or schemes: a visionary enthusiast.
    2. given to or concerned with seeing visions.
    3. belonging to or seen in a vision.
    4. unreal; imaginary: visionary evils.
    5. purely idealistic or speculative; impractical; unrealizable: a visionary scheme.
    6. of, pertaining to, or proper to a vision.
    7. a person of unusually keen foresight.
    8. a person who sees visions.
    9. a person who is given to audacious, highly speculative, or impractical ideas or schemes; dreamer.

    Maybe this is the dream D.J. and Amanda. http://transcripts.cnn.com/TRANSCRIPTS/0711/19/acd.02.html

    D.J. (through translator): To get to joyously live the dream.

    BAGGS (through translator): Or to live things better than we dream.

    I don't know...


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 8:14 AM  

  • Fabulous post!

    My son is constantly asking what certain phrases mean---recently it was "out of the frying pan and into the fire". He tries them out and incorporates them into his daily conversations...usually correctly.

    It's almost like he's got a little catalog in his head. You can see him flipping through to find an appropriate metaphor for almost every occasion.

    ---Just read a rather bizarre post on Disaboom, and went to the links. A neuroregeneration ranch for those with autism! Wonder what the "detoxification" entails. Noni-juice enemas?


    By Blogger Attila The Mom, at 9:15 AM  

  • Really great post and about time too. Much thanks:)

    By Blogger Alyric, at 9:24 AM  

  • Thank you for pointing out yet another area where a tendency not to take things at face value is pathologised.

    By Blogger elmindreda, at 1:23 PM  

  • On the "Make hay...." phrase, I've always gotten hung up at the word "make" We don't make hay. You either plant it or harvest it or store it, people don't ever "make" hay. To make something you have to put different pieces together such as to make a cake, you don't do that with hay, you put seed in the ground and water it. That phrase just so doesn't make sense....

    By Blogger Katrin, at 2:02 PM  

  • Echolalia as metaphor....Beautiful, apt, perceptive. I can't believe I never saw that before, but you are so spot-on...

    By Anonymous Ranunculus, at 2:44 AM  

  • I always wonder at how they can think that a test of idiomatic language can possibly avoid bias, anyway. I mean, not everybody is exposed to the same phrases.

    Yes, you get it! I use quotations often to convey a feeling, or a comparable situation, whether quoting Einstein or Seinfeld. How can saying "These pretzels are making me thirsty" when I clearly don't even have any pretzels possibly be interpreted as literal language?

    By Blogger geosaru, at 11:45 PM  

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