Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Autism and Abstract Thinking III: "Hard to define but easy to give an example"

In my Autism, Language and Reasoning class I'm constantly underlining the distinction between words whose meanings are hard to grasp and words whose meanings are simply hard to teach. For kids with autism, both of these challenges arise more often than they do for neurotypical kids.

On the one hand, AS kids have trouble grasping a whole host of everyday meanings that presuppose a neurotypical level of social awareness: "friend," "respect," "jealousy," and "fairness," to name just a few. On the other hand, AS kids have trouble learning a much broader range of words whose meanings are simply difficult to teach explicitly: abstract nouns ("shape"), as well as many more words that aren't nouns ("jump," "around," "because," "and"). These meanings aren't inherently difficult for AS kids to grasp; the problem is that they're difficult to teach.

This teaching obstacle is something most of us don't appreciate--or even need to think about. Neurotypical kids will pick up the meanings of "jump," "and," etc., without us having to explain them directly: they simply tune in to conversations and pick up cues from social context. The more tuned-out of AS children, on the other hand, will learn these words only if someone explicitly teaches them.

Some words, of course, are much easier to teach than others. Pointing to a dog and saying "dog" is one thing, but how do you point to the meaning of "jump" or "and" or "because"? Many people, including the experts, have observed that the vocabularies of children with autism are dominated by concrete nouns, with many fewer verbs, function words, or nouns with abstract meanings. Not appreciating how dependent AS kids are on direct instruction, and how difficult it is to teach most word meanings directly, all too many people, experts included, conclude that part of autism is difficulty with abstract concepts.

The distinction between conceptual issues and instructional issues is itself a rather subtle, abstract concept. So I was delighted to see J grasping one facet of this distinction just the other day, when I, just for fun, asked him to define the words "left" and "right." He took a stab at it, then observed that "Some words are hard to define but easy to give an example."

I asked him for another example of this. He looked off toward the kitchen door, and then got up, opened the door, and said "open." I suggested that we look up the dictionary definition of "open," and we spent the next 10 minutes chuckling over the tautological or circular definitions you get when you chase down the definitions of the key defining terms of each next definition. He particularly enjoyed looking up such basic but elusive words as "is" and "I"--both words he specifically picked, and also words that once totally eluded him--until such time as I managed, marshaling all my linguistic knowledge, to find a way to teach them explicitly. But that's a whole nother story.

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