Thursday, May 1, 2008

Underestimating people with autism: do they really not understand non-literal language?

I'm off to Chicago tonight for my thesis advisor's retirement conference, during which I will answer a whole-hearted "no."

Many children with autism grasp a variety of non-literal uses:

-Ask "Can you pass the salt," and, rather than simply answering "yes," they will pass you the salt.
-Ask "Why do you keep picking your nose," and, rather than giving you a reason, they will take your words rhetorically and stop.
-Ask "are you stuck," and, rather than objecting that math isn't sticky, they will tell you whether the algebra problem has stumped them.

In their own non-literal, figurative speech, autistic people can be quite clever. Here's a recent simile from my son:

Changing passwords so people won’t guess is like hide and seek when I move while other people are trying to find me.

Many autism researchers haven't noticed these abilities, and, beginning with Alan Leslie, have proposed that an impairment in moving beyond literal meanings to higher level meta-representations is inherent to autism.

But autism, like passwords that keep changing and children who keep hiding in different places, is a moving target. Just when we think we have it within our sights, it winks at us and shifts on--sometimes to places we never thought it could go.


Anonymous said...

I could well be wrong here, but this is how I see the situation:

The first of your examples is a situation where a person learns a pattern by repetition. The second is more difficult, and probably involves the person at least knowing that picking your nose is not well received. They, maybe, were not aware they were doing it, or lapsing and their stopping may not have to do with the phrasing. The third, I think, is simply a word with multiple meanings.

Perhaps someone can teach me about autistic people? However, I don't think "higher level meta-representations" is right because I think the language issues are about usage. This is necessarily social and therefore, maybe less relevant and less accessable to autistic people, as well as being difficult to separate out from the rest of the social information.

lefty said...

In all three cases, what's crucial is that, by whatever mechanism, the child has learned to override the literal meaning (overriding as well whatever responses they may have had to it). This contradicts what some autism researchers have claimed is possible.

The exact mechanism by which the child moves beyond the literal is unclear. Certainly repetition and norms of expectation play big roles-- as they do for *all* of us.

I agree with you that what handicaps language is most autistic people is the social deficit, and how it makes language less accessible to autistic people, as you say.