Tuesday, September 29, 2015

From Frankenstein to Facilitated Communication

What do Frankenstein and Facilitated Communication have in common? Both involve miraculous stories of word learning.

In one case you have a nonverbal child who, supplied with some sort of facilitated communication medium, suddenly evinces neurotypical vocabulary (not to mention neurotypical grammar and conversational skills). In the other case you have a humanoid monster mastering his first language by overhearing, through the window of his hovel, conversations between his unwitting nextdoor neighbors. The facilitated child starts writing poetry and novels; the humanoid listener reads Plutarch and Milton. As I noted earlier in connection with the former:

You watch these children’s eyes (to the extent that the videos let you), and you see little or no evidence of focused or coordinated eye gaze; you see eyes that seem to flit all over the place, or to stare upwards or outwards at nothing in particular (and often not at the keyboard that their fingers are pushing against).  
Perhaps all this can be explained by sensory-motor problems rather than socio-cognitive impairments. But then you have to ask: how can kids whose eyes seem not to be able to track pointing gestures or eye gazes, and who would seem therefore to have no way to deduce what people’s words refer to when uttered, have managed to learn the words for the various things in their everyday environments? Not to mention the more advanced words that have somehow entered their soliloquies, poetry, and memoirs: words like “assume” and “knowingly”?  
More advanced learners can pick up words from texts alone, but to jumpstart the process you (however neurotypical or neurountypical you are) need real-world connections. Before you can read for meaning, that is, you need a critical mass of basic vocabulary that you’ve actively linked to the outside world. And linking those basic words to the outside world--in other words to their meanings--requires of you (however neurotypical or neurountypical you are) a certain threshold of sustained and appropriately targeted auditory and visual attention.
It’s also essential to be actively engaged with those using language around you. Overhearing language on TV, it turns out, doesn’t do much for language novices; what’s essential is shared space, shared attention, and the ability to look up at the speaker’s eyes and then over to what he or she is looking it. Children with autism, even if they share space with language users, often don’t share attention. They may mis-map the words they hear to whatever they themselves are attending to, not noticing that the speaker is looking elsewhere, thereby mis-learning the word meanings.

Language takes off outside of 3D shared space and shared attention only after you learn a critical mass of words in your first language. Picture books, and books with illustrations, diagrams, and maps, and glossaries, provide a crucial bridge over to pure prose. Once there, you can learn troves of new words from the surrounding words you already know.

Another bridge is your first language: via glossaries, translations, and explanations, it can jumpstart you into a second language.

But for total language novices, printed words and overheard words are not enough. Fairy tales aside, that is.

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