Sunday, July 12, 2015

Autism diaries: the question of authorship

"I just assumed you were coming back to the kitchen," says J. "In fact, I did not even think of trying to leave the fan on all night."

In fact; assume--to my ears, coming out of J's mouth, these words sound almost miraculous. Not only are they the sort of subtle, conversational terms that are supposed to elude even higher functioning Aspies and auties, they're also words J's picked up on his own, simply by overhearing people use them. Nearly all the words in his vocabulary, until recently, had to be deliberately pointed out or defined for him, sometimes repeatedly. Now, through the incidental learning that typifies most neurotypical language learners but eludes most individuals with autism, these words have become fully J's own.

I've written frequently about the question of authorship in autism. While this question arises most especially vis-a-vis the "facilitated communication" of nonverbal individuals, where it's for from clear who (or what) is actually doing the communicating (see here, here, and here), it also arises with verbal kids who communicate independently. Kids on the spectrum often have copious memories and can regurgitate verbatim large tracks of memorized discourse and large bodies of memorized facts. Some of them go through intensive behavioral therapy that drills them in prepackaged conversational phrases and formulas. Autism autobiographies may undergo extensive re-writing by editors--even if those editors manage to maintain, more or less, the original authorial voice. Those rewrites, in turn, may be memorized and regurgitated by the original authors in book talks and other post-publication speeches.

The flat facial affect, flat tone of voice, and overall lack of expressivity of autistic speakers only heightens the question of who is really communicating. Is it the individual with autism, drawing spontaneously on internally processed knowledge, and putting words together independently and extemporaneously? Or is what we're hearing ultimately the product of a facilitator, a behavioral script, a book editor, a word-button or word-prediction program, or an author of a text that has been read and reread out of obsessive autistic interest?

It's often hard to say--and the line between the two extremes is often fuzzy. It's probably somewhat fuzzy even for neurotypicals: all of us do some cutting and pasting of other people's words.

In J's case, however, the same things that have limited him over the years have minimized questions about authorship. He doesn't sit for drills; his verbal memory is poor; he reads very little by choice; his only obsession is ceiling fans, and even this tremendously high-interest topic doesn't inspire much reading; nor does he publish memoirs and give book talks.

What this means is that what comes out of J's mouth or his various keyboards really is J--through and through. There's absolutely no illusion whatsoever...

Except that there is--at a whole new level.

Yes, what comes out of J's various keyboards really is J, through and through. But, as we've seen repeatedly, he often tries to pass off his words as belonging to someone else. He's regularly, and often successfully, impersonated each of his parents, along with a few others--for example, those lucky individuals whose email accounts he's hacked.

At his "best," in other words, J not only isn't echoing others, but is surpassing even himself.

No comments: