Thursday, July 9, 2009

Autism Diaries XII: Pragmatics and Perspective Taking

Even if no other aspect of language is impaired in autism, there's pragmatics, or the ability to hold "normal" conversations. Knowing how much information to supply, for example, is inextricably caught up in perspective taking (a.k.a. Theory of Mind)--one of the core deficits of autism.

But J has grown so adept at figuring out how much information to supply that I'm wondering if the process has become nearly as automatic is it is for us "neurotypicals."

For example, in talking about someone's home with his younger sister (in the course of teaching her how not to get checkmated in four moves), he spontaneously (and consistently) referred the house not as H's house (as he does when discussing it with me), but as L's house. H is my adult friend; L is her son--a little boy with whom J's sister often has play dates. It seemed as if J had calculated that his sister would think of this house as L's house rather than as H's house.

Here's a more complicated example:

Ever since Jonah completed GrammarTrainer Level III, he's understood "cleft sentences," or sentences of the form "It was Daddy who did that." But GrammarTrainer is not PragmaticsTrainer (stay tuned!), and so he never learned when it might be appropriate to use a cleft structure. Therefore, since they're more complex than their unclefted counterparts, he hasn't bothered actually using them.

Until yesterday. After he slammed shut a door that his father had left open for both of us, and after I'd had to let myself in with my key, he said to me (a twinkle in his eye): "It was Daddy who closed the door."

His pragmatics were perfect. That someone had closed the door was obvious--indeed, it was surely the event his mother was brooding about as she irritably fumbled for her keys. Who had closed the door, on the other hand, wasn't so clear (well... unless you know J), and was perhaps the question his mother was asking herself. The cleft structure's function is to embed old information (that someone closed the door), and to highlight new information (that it was Daddy), and J somehow knew to do just that.

Along with many other people, I've often suspected that high functioning autistic individuals are able to function socially by working out logically what the rest of us do by gut instinct. But now I'm wondering whether, if you practice it repeatedly enough, some of this logic can become gut instinct--just like the algorithms of arithmetic do (at least for the lucky few who still have the opportunity to practice them sufficiently).

Certainly J, who has made practical jokes his life's mission, has more motivation than many people do to practice working out--over and over and over again--the complex logic of perspective taking.

It will serve him well.

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