Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Autism and abstract thinking

One of the assumptions commonly made by people who know, or think they know, something about autism is that autistic people tend to be concrete thinkers.  Since the high functioning autism population is full of mathematicians, engineers, computer scientists, and linguists, who reason in highly symbolic, abstract ways through highly abstract material, this assumption has baffled me.


When I teach classes on autism, I marvel at how frequently my students continue to make this assumption no matter how frequently I try to disabuse them of it.  As I consider the reasons why this happens, several thoughts come to mind:

1. For many people, abstraction is synonymous with fuzziness, flexibility, and open-endedness. Because autistic people tend to be rigid, ritualistic, precise, pendantic, and/or detail-focused, and because many of them don't do well when faced with open-ended questions or open-ended tasks assigned to them by other people, they do not look like abstract thinkers according to this misconception of "abstract." All too often, for example, people forget that the concept of "polygon" is no less abstract than the concept of "love."

2. Many people, especially in education, conflate logical inferencing with the sorts of inferencing that good readers engage in when making sense of a text.  As I've discussed in previous posts (here and here), many of today's assigned texts require the sorts of social inferences and and bridging inferences (integration of background knowledge) with which autistic children tend to struggle. These are not the same as inferring the contrapositive or doing a reductio ad absurdum.

3. Many people, as I discussed in a recent post, confuse labels with concepts and assume that a child who doesn't know the label for a given concept also doesn't understand the concept.  Many labels for abstract concepts and logical processes are difficult for autistic children to pick up on their own: they often require explicit vocabulary instruction that other children don't need. Unless and until they receive such instruction, many people will assume that they don't understand the underlying abstractions--e.g., that if he doesn't know the word "because," he doesn't understand causality.

Unfortunately, because so many people, in their confusion about what abstraction entails and how abstract concepts differ from linguistic labels, overestimate their own understanding of abstraction, they once again underestimate the capacities of great numbers of autistic children.

1 comment:

Hainish said...

Perhaps you could get the point across to your students by giving them a test of abstract analytical skills. It could serve as a small but effective reality check for them.