Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Why grammar matters for autism, part I

I intend this as Part I of a three part series, collectively addressing the question of why grammar is something that no comprehensive autism therapy should overlook.

Today:  Why grammar isn't trivial.

Later:  Why many autistic children need explicit instruction in grammar; What works and how most therapies fall short


Why grammar isn't trivial:

Consider how we form questions in English:

1. The person I am thinking of is swimming --> Is the person I am thinking of swimming?
2. The person I am thinking of swims. --> Does the person I am thinking of swim?
3. The people I am thinking of swim. --> Do the people I am thinking of swim?
4. The person I am thinking of swam --> Did the person I am thinking of swim?
5. The person thinking of will swim --> Will the person I am thinking of swim?
6. The person I am thinking of might have been swimming --> Might the person I am thinking of have been swimming?

The Question Rule:  
Move the first auxiliary verb after the subject (here: the person I am thinking of), assuming there is an auxiliary verb (sentences 1, 5, 6), to the front of the sentence. If there is no auxiliary verb (sentences 2-4), take the verb do, change it to the same tense and number as the main verb (doesdo, or did), and put it at the beginning of the sentence, while changing the main verb to its bare infinitive form (swims/swam --> swim).  

Key grammatical concepts: 
--inversion:  moving a verb to the front of a sentence 
--auxiliary verb: (including will, may, might, and various forms of the verb to be).
--do-support: (inserting do when there's no auxiliary verb).
--tense marking: (when to keep the tense on the main verb vs. move it to the verb do)
--subject: (can include a relative clause modifier, as in the people I am thinking of)
--main verb: (the verb that agrees with the subject)

Native English speakers who don't have language deficits acquire these concepts implicitly--as well as the complex Question Rule in which they figure.

If we didn't, we might make the following errors:

1. He is swimming? (failure to use inversion)
2. Swimming he is?  (not grasping non-auxiliary vs auxiliary verbs)
3. Swam he? (failure to use do-support)
4. Did he swam?/Do he swam?  (failure to mark tense on only the auxiliary verb)
5. Is the person I thinking of is swimming?  (failure to parse out and skip over the subject to the main verb)

The complexity of English question formation is just one example of how grammar--even that which most of us apply subconsciously--is anything but trivial.


Liz Ditz said...

Thanks for this series, Lefty. As an NT I sometimes overlook what I take for granted. My client RunescapeBoy runs into these grammar confusions and this series will give me some tools for teaching.

lefty said...

Thanks, Liz. I'd love to hear more about your client. Until recently, few people recognized the grammatical difficulties that many people with autism face.

I'm hoping to have time for more on this topic Thursday or Friday.

Mrs. C said...

What really KILLS ME is that the school labelled my son G's poor grammar as a "cultural difference" when he would say things such as "don't gots no..." in a sentence.

HELLOOOO, no one else at home speaks this way.

The middle set of children use words like "rundidid" for "ran." As in, "I rundidid to the car because we were go-ning to a store." They can read well, but I think we will be stuck covering second grade grammar concepts for about three more years.

lefty said...

Very nice to meet you, Mrs. C! A "cultural difference"! That's outrageous. It does seem, though, that schools would prefer to explain everything in terms of things like culture and emotional maturity, instead of taking academic responsibility.

Anonymous said...

Err... this may come off as woefully picky and peevish of a latecomer, but shouldn't the examples be more of the form "the person of whom I am thinking?" I'm somewhat confused, as I've had that dangling-preposition thing pounded into my head so deeply, I can no longer recall whether "thought of" serves sufficiently as a predicate in its own right to ignore the rule.

lefty said...

You're right that some English grammar rules have "the person of whom I am thinking" as the correct form. These are stylistic rules: rules that people often violate. Then there are more basic rules that no native English speaker would often violate--like the question rule I give here. That's the kind of rule that matters for language impaired children with autism. Teaching them to use formal, stylistically correct grammar, as opposed to everyday grammar, is a relatively low priority, given all the other communication challenges they have.