Saturday, July 5, 2008

Why many autistic children need explicit grammar instruction

Full immersion.

Just as it's the only way to master a second language, so it is, as well, the only way to master a first.

It's just that when it comes to first languages, we take full immersion for granted. Our native language, by definition, is the one in which we are born, and immersed within our homes and communities, throughout those crucial first years of language development.

Immersed, that is, so long as we tune into the people around us, share attention with them, and appreciate them as intentional agents that communicate--with one another as well as directly with us.

A child on the autistic spectrum who rarely attends to what other people are attending to or communicating is like a visitor to a foreign country who takes out her powerful earplugs only occasionally, for fleeting moments that encompass fragments of disconnected discourse. Such a child might eventually acquire a basic vocabulary, and even put words together that express intelligent thoughts, but is likely to remain mired in an ungrammatical pidgin unless, before those critical years are over, his social attentiveness increases substantially.

Fully capable of mastering grammar, but immune to the full immersion that could take him there, this child desperately needs an alternate route.

For him or her--this systematic, rule-seeking child with autism--what better route to grammar--the systematic, rule-based structure that underlies every language....

...than that of systematic, rule-based grammar instruction?


Laura said...

I'm far from being qualified to assess this idea, but it makes intuitive sense to me. Very interesting!

It's funny, w/my Aspie son, grammar almost seemed to come before vocabulary. When he was a little toddler, he only had a handful of words (and half of them colors at that), but he would find a way to string as many of them together grammatically as he could, long before he seemed interested in or capable of adding more vocabulary words.

Though while he speaks fluently now, it's clear there are often thoughts he has trouble expressing with words. It makes me wonder if he would benefit from this kind of approach, even though he only qualifies for "pragmatic speech" therapy in school.

Anyway, thanks for these posts, and I hope to read more!

lefty said...

Laura--How interesting that grammar came early for your son relative to vocabulary. In a way it fits the Aspy system-loving profile.

Do you remember how grammatical those early strings of sentences were?

Any lingering problems with grammar, say at the level of complex sentences?

More on the way--

Laura said...

Hmm. I guess I was mostly thinking about one big "sentence" he put together a number of times when he was 20 months old or so (he did seem to be constructing it each time, or else he was concentrating fiercely on remembering each word), that contained about 1/3 of his words:

Mama Dada Gaga bye-bye ba ga (which roughly meant Mommy, Daddy, and Gabriel go bye bye in the blue car).

I'm not sure it was that grammatical, now that I think about it, but it struck me at the time that he was very interested in putting words together, but not very interested in adding new words (he would add about 2-3 words per month from about 16 months to 21 months old). Definitely a systems lover.

The rest of his utterances were only 2-3 word "sentences," though they seemed to make sense grammatically. Some examples: "mo' ella-onj" (more orange juice); "ella ga! ella uck!" (yellow car! yellow truck!)A funny one was "Ba on" and "Ba off," which was "blue on" and "blue off," which was his way of saying light blue and dark blue.

I'm not sure how his current grammar compares to that of typical kids, since he's only 6. I can't ever seem to get a straight answer out of his speech teacher, but he wasn't flagged for speech problems other than pragmatic language, and his speech seems fluent to me, as long as he's in "talking mode."

He definitely does not pick up on some aspects of colloquial speech (though I'd have to really think about it to describe it more specifically), and will be somewhat creative to get around that, but again, I'm not sure how much that differs from kids his age, and not sure how that relates to the complex grammar issue.