Saturday, February 12, 2011

Autism and abstract thinking, II: concrete vs. figurative language

Several months ago, I wrote a post about how frequently people assume that autism involves deficits in abstract thinking, and proposed several reasons for this widespread misconception:

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.

I'm once again teaching a class on language difficulties in autism, and yet another reason for linking autism to limited, concrete thinking has emerged:

4. People conflate concrete vs. figurative language with concrete vs. abstract concepts.  While it's true that individuals with autism tend to interpret language concretely, this entails nothing about their ability to form abstract concepts.  

Moreover, as I discuss in a chapter in this forthcoming book, the tendency by autistic children to interpret language concretely isn't a conceptual difficulty with nonliteral language per se, but the result of a combination of deficits in social reasoning and deficits in vocabulary and idioms. For example, a child who assumes that "stuck" always means physically "stuck" has probably simply never learned the more metaphorical meaning of stuck.  

J, for his part, loves metaphorical extensions and uses of language, and is quite inventive about making up new ones.

1 comment:

FedUpMom said...

I don't know about autism, but my kids don't like those open-ended tasks assigned by other people either.