Wednesday, October 10, 2007

AS and the Problem with Language: Response to a Great Comment

I was going to get on and do a quick blog about something else, but I will save that topic for another day. I got and excellent and detailed comment from Rebecca on my post, Writing for Visual Thinkers, that I want to discuss further here because my response will need some elaboration. For the entire comment, check out the post and comments.

In my original post, I spent a few sentences discussing generalizations. Rebecca wrote this about my short discussion.

First she quotes what I wrote.

"In the auditory-sequential world, generalizations are understood as shorthand, but in the visual world they are seen as incomplete at best, and at worst, they are lies."

Rebecca then wrote:

"I was going to quote Ayn Rand, but we sold the book. This is an interesting point, though -- that is what the study of linguistics is about, how we use words -- not just generalizations, but all words -- as symbols for concrete and abstract realities and manipulate words as a means to categorize, analyze, and express thoughts about those realities. What I don't understand is, if generalizations are inferior and inaccurate, why the use of so much jargon? Jargon is merely specialized language. Jargon, more than generalizations, IS shorthand, a means of saying with one word an idea, process, or concept which would otherwise require a lengthy explanation."

And here is what I want to say about generalizations and jargon.

First, I don't think that generalizations are inferior and inaccurate. What I did say is that to a certain part of the population they come across that way. Generalizations are a good way to organize and categorize knowledge. In much of Gifted Education, we focus on increasing the ability of our students to make meaningful generalizations because this develops a person's ability to think about complex issues.

However, people with Autism Spectrum Disorders have a great deal of difficulty with generalizations. Remember that all the ASD share the characteristic of being, in part, a social-communication disorder. Part of the challenge for people with ASD is that they do not easily understand figurative language and they do not perceive the body language that would help with this. There are several areas of the brain that may be involved with this, such as the superior temporal sulcus in the temporal lobe, and possibly visual-motor centers in the superior colliculus. But wherever the problem may manifest in the brain (and it is likely that it involves different areas and the communication between them), but upshot of it is a lack of sophistication with language, which is processed by the brain through the auditory sensory processing systems downstream of the primary auditory system, even when it is written.

For example, when N. was younger, I used to say things to him like:

"Would you like to put that dirty plate by the sink?" Although posed as a question, intonation and body language, as well as an understanding of my role as the mother, would give most children the idea that this was a command disguised as a question for politeness. But N. would not see the body language, hear the intonation, or take not of my social role in the situation. He would take the question absolutely literally and respond with his actual desire, thus: "No, I don't want to do that." Now, I quickly figured out, using all the skills that N. did not have, that he was taking my question literally, and I learned to pose my commands directly and concisely in order to get the desired behavior. It worked quite well if I merely said; "Please put the dirty plate by the sink." N. was not being oppositional, he was merely being literal. The problem is that many adults jump immediately to the conclusion that literal children are, in fact, oppositional--and this is where many kids with Aspergers (AS) get into trouble in the wide world beyond the family.

Generalizations are a sophisticated juxtoposition of concepts with reality. They do not directly map onto reality, and when we use them, most of us are aware of the difference. For example, I can make the following generalization: "Christians believe in orignial sin, and therefore..." using the generalization to get on to the actual idea about Christians that I want to present. But beware if you are dealing with someone with AS (or even someone with the broader autistic phenotype). Such a person will immediately call up every counter-example of your statement and derail the conversation into a discussion of the branches of Christianity that do not accept the doctrine of original sin. People with AS and other ASD must be taught directly to understand use of language that goes beyond the literal, such as figures of speech, metaphors, and generalizations.

Another fascinating and wonderful characteristic of the ASD, is that of detail orientation. One area that we see this is in the visual thinking skills that so many people on the spectrum have. Certain kinds of visual tests show that people with ASD are able to process and remember the details of visual input whereas neurotypical people forget the details and retain the gestalt, which is the big picture. There are several ideas currently being investigated about the origins of this skill. But one thing that we do know, people on the spectrum tend to pay attention to the parts rather than the whole. They can perseverate on the parts endlessly, and miss the "big picture."

Generalizations are the verbal counterpart to the big picture. A person making a generalization is doing so in order to get past each detail and present an overall concept for consideration. But to the person with AS, and to those who think almost exclusively in pictures, the generalization seems woefully undetailed and therefore incomplete or even untrue. They have great difficulty with generalizations and can perseverate on the problems they pose, thus missing what comes next. When it comes to writing this is a real problem, since we must make generalizations in order to write concisely about ideas.

Think about all of the generalizations I have made thus far about people with AS, ASD and neurotypicals. I did not do it because I believe that in each individual case what I am talking about applies in exactly the same way, but in order to get across to you an idea about communication and AS.

And now, a word about jargon.

I do understand that in any field, jargon, or technical language is necessary to convey concepts concisely. When I, as a scientist, use certain terms with other scientists, they do not mean the same thing as when I use them in general company. For example, when I taught genetics, I used the term evolution to mean "a change in gene frequencies over time within a population." Any biologist hearing me in context knew exactly what I was saying. Our educations provide us with an agreed upon meaning for the use of the term. But in the general population, the word evolution means something very different. As it is often used, it means change over time leading to some kind of improvement. Directionality (a teleological concept) is not part of what biologists mean. Thus, we get all sorts of amusing (at least to me) controversy over the term.

But as we become more and more specialized, jargon quickly becomes a problem. When scientists within different branches of the same field cannot communicate because they do not understand the technical differences in meaning, quote the warden in Cool Hand Luke: "What we have here is a failure to communicate."

Although I do think that jargon is sometimes used to obfuscate, I do not think that it is always so. To make a generalization (:)), I think that many scientists, especially those who are primarily visual thinkers, overuse jargon because they have not developed the ability to use ordinary language in a sophisticated enough manner to communicate to the general public or even to scientists outside their fields. And in my experience with reading and writing as a scientist, I believe that the way we teach or do not teach writing in graduate schools of science has weakened such skills further. Many times, the use of an apt figure or speech, a metaphor, a generalization, or a homely example would clarify a point and make it more understandable to the reader.

Please do not misunderstand my generalizations here to mean that scientists are all autistic. Only some of us are. And some of the rest of us do have the broader autistic phenotype showing in how we communicate. And neither are all scientists visual thinkers. But a lot of us are. And for some of us, so much so that communicating in words is a difficulty we'd rather forgo.

And as for our students with ASD, I believe it is important to understand their difficulties with the use of generalizations. For if we can understand what the problem is then we are much more likely to be able to teach them how get beyond it. It is so much better than throwing our hands up in the air and calling these kids lazy and intransigent.

Oh, and one more idea: I just realized that generalizations are so useful in writing because language is auditory in nature. Since our auditory working memory can hold, on average, only about seven bits, we generally resort to chunking. For example, if I want to remember a four digit number, such as 1,492, I am very likely to repeat it as "fourteen ninety-two." I have chunked it into two numbers instead of four. Generalizations are a way of chunking a lot of detail into an overall concept, freeing up processing space for manipulating the concept intead of spending an inordinate and impossible amount of energy sorting out every detail.

Anyway, thanks for the comment, Rebecca!

As you can see, it was a very fruitful source of thinking for me!

Oh! And I'd love to know what the quote by Ayn Rand was. I read every one of her books several times as a teenager.


Rebecca said...

Finally getting back to this after a busy couple of days. Wow! Thank you for such a detailed response. Jargon is extremely extremely precise and therefore right up the AS "alley", whereas generalizations are fraught with exceptions and therefore maddening -- have I got it?

BTW your example about "all Christians" and original sin was ideal...I immediately started picking it apart for the exceptions!

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

Hi, Rebecca,

Yep, I think that's what's going on. It is really interesting how I have to think about presentations that I give. When I give one to educators, I need to pare down the detail and increase the number of generalizations so that they can think about the concepts and how they relate to particular students. If I keep too much detail, they get lost in it.

When I give presentations to scientists, like I will this week, I have to be picky about all of the details and exceptions and assumptions because otherwise they will clobber me with it.

I got clobbered by an AS person on the original sin generalization once, even though I was careful to talk about "Christianity as a whole..."

The guy is in science himself. Oddly enough, though, he made several much less flattering generalizations about Christians and he denied it when called on it. I have become very wary of discussing religion, politics and the Great Pumpkin with certain people. :)