Saturday, May 3, 2008

Underestimating people with autism, part II: the prism of language

The widespread assumption that people with autism are mired in the literal (see below), unable to grasp figurative language, strikes me as yet another example of how we constantly underestimate autistic intelligence.

Because most people with autism have subtle linguistic deficits or delays, and because language is the prism through which we view people's intellects, we tend to marginalize as "splinter skills" or "savant skills" or "islets of ability" any autistic talents that nonetheless leap out--whether solving puzzles and Rubik's cubes, taking apart and reassembling doorknobs and thermostats, or calculating repeating decimals and binary numbers. Surely, without commensurate language, the autistic child must be doing all this mechanically and subconsciously.

Particularly guilty of marginalizing autistic strengths are Reform Math devotees, enamored as they are of communicating about math:

He may be able to calculate, but he can't explain his answers, so he must not really understand what he's doing.

Limited language does not mean limited understanding: it simply means a limited ability to convey that understanding to others.

Language itself, where autism is concerned, may be less of an inherent cognitive limitation than we tend to assume. A core deficit in social relatedness may prevent us from paying attention frequently enough, and for long enough intervals, to the language that surrounds us to absorb as much as other people do. It would be like wearing powerful earplugs and only taking them off occasionally.

To set in motion the normal mechanisms of language acquisition, autistic children desperately need to develop their awareness and understanding of other people.

To properly appreciate and nurture autistic strengths, we neurotypicals desperately need to develop our awareness and understanding of people with autism.

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