Sunday, July 7, 2013

Autism Diaries XLX: A spectrum of speech

I’ve just finished teaching my autism class, and in the course of reviewing in-class videos of a range of individuals on the autistic spectrum, it has struck me that one dimension of variability is in how “canned” or prepackaged a person’s speech is. Truly spontaneous speech involves in-the-moment integration of information from multiple sources: long-term memory, the immediate circumstances, and the intended audience—a complex information processing task of the sort that those on the spectrum often find particularly challenging. Truly spontaneous speech also involves social challenges: tailoring tone and content to different conversational partners and adjusting what you say depending on their responses.

For those with difficulties in social reasoning and complex information processing, it’s easiest to default to pre-packaged discourse retrieved from long-term memory. That seems to be what Temple Grandin does. Listen to a few lectures and q and a sessions, and you quickly start hearing the same sentences and paragraphs over and over again. You may also hear some more spontaneous, and much more hesitant, speech in response to a question that may be totally new to her, but then she quickly stumbles into what sounds like a canned response originally constructed in an off-line situation detached from time pressure and all the other pressures of in-the-moment social dynamics.

I first noticed this behavior in a couple of professors of mine who may or may not have been on the autistic spectrum. In both cases, especially when you spoke with them one-on-one during office hours, there was this sense that they weren’t really talking to you. You could have been anyone, or no one, and they would have delivered the exact same speech. When I spoke back to them, I had the feeling my words were simply pushing buttons that mechanically opened files whose contents were then automatically outputted wholesale-- in precisely the form in which they were previously saved.

There’s surely a spectrum here that extends into the neurotypical population. People vary in how spontaneous and interactive their speech is and how much they adjust to different audiences—and it seems to be the more social people who show the greatest flexibility.

But the degree of pre-packaging may also be an area of subtle difference within the autistic spectrum. The Little Professor who carries on about his or her favorite topic via prepackaged lectures and canned responses in a pedantic tone that seems eerily uncommunicative: that kind of rigidity is the stereotype of Asperger’s. But there are some kids who are considered more severely autistic, because they are more language impaired, who nonetheless show greater flexibility. J, for instance, except for his repetitive questions, generally speaks spontaneously and flexibly—if often ungrammatically. He adjusts his responses contingently, noticing, to some extent, when he’s been misunderstood—adding such phrases as “I didn’t say that” or other clarifications. In all his life, he’s never delivered a single lecture. His preferred role is to ask questions—including real questions generated by actual curiosity rather than perseverative obsessions.

His most strikingly spontaneous, socially-contingent question occurred the other day, when he was grilling a friend of ours on why she had gotten divorced. Years ago, as the divorce was still underway, she told him that her husband had failed to fix the broken ceiling fans, and J left it at that. But last week he wanted more.

“Well, D wasn’t nice to me. He didn’t treat me well.”

“How wasn’t he nice to you?”

B elaborated a bit—keeping it simple and discreet, but compelling. After she finished, J, using a phrase I’d never heard him use before, asked:

“Then why did you marry him in the first place?”

1 comment:

Lsquared said...

Cool! He realizes that not fixing ceiling fans is not grounds for divorce. That sounds like a landmark in understanding others (for J).