Monday, February 8, 2016

Autistic readers and pre-modern literature: do they really "want abilities"?

In an earlier post, I discussed the challenges that autistic readers have dealing with non-literal language. The big problem, I noted, aren’t the many conventionalized examples of non-literal language—for example, “raining cats and dogs,” “can you pass the salt?” “I’m stuck”. These phrases are so commonly used non-literally that one can simply acquire and memorize their non-literal meanings in the same way one does with words that have more than one meaning.

Rather, what’s problematic are expressions whose intended meanings aren’t currently conventional: for example, less common, hackneyed ones like “your essay needs some sign posts” or “the cadenza was mischievous.” In the absence of common, conventional, non-literal meanings, the literal meanings of these expressions are the most salient. To override them as unlikely in context, the listener/reader must consider that context in full: the big picture; the larger discourse/text; what the speaker/writer is or isn’t plausibly trying to communicate. Does your English teacher really want you to attach actual sign posts to your essay? How likely is a cadenza to be literally mischievous, or for the music reviewer to think it is? What is the most likely alternative meaning? Perhaps some metaphorical extension of the literal one?

More recently, as I immerse myself for homeschooling purposes in the prose of Austen, Bronte, Hawthorne, and Bulfinch, I’m noticing another way in which the literal-minded autistic reader could be led astray. Hundred-plus-year-old texts house scores of obsolete idiomatic expressions and words whose meaning have drifted significantly since they were originally put to paper. Some of these I’ve been collecting in an earlier post. Consider "intercourse" for social interaction; "check" for limit; "suffer" for allow; "late" for recent; "discover" for reveal; “host” for army; “closet” for private room; "in a body" for as a group; "gay" for happy; “fix” for sabotage and “want” for need or lack. Consider how someone who can’t get beyond what today’s literal meaning of “fix” and “want” will misinterpret “Pelops bribed the charioteer to fix the chariot” or "Mr. Darcy can please as he chooses. He does not want abilities".

Of course, neurotypical readers, particularly those who don’t have much experience with older texts and semantic drift, may also struggle with these shifted meanings. Only the most discerning and semantically flexible young readers, I’m guessing, will deduce from context alone what it means for the bribed charioteer to “fix a chariot” or for Mr. Darcy to “not want abilities.” But, to the extent that neurotypical students are more sensitive to what’s plausible given the bigger picture, they are at least more likely than their autistic counterparts to dismiss the literal meaning, and thus--even if they don't come up with a meaningful alternative—not be led totally astray.

The best teachers, of course, will go over the obsolete and archaic meanings, sharpening everyone’s appreciation for older literature and, in the process--to use a still quite commonplace and conventionalized, even hackneyed metaphor--leveling the playing field for everyone.


FedUpMom said...

I have the opposite problem; I think everything is a metaphor, and then I'm surprised when it turns out to be literal. One example is Albert Speer, who is always described as "the architect of the Nazi Party." For years I thought this meant he had designed the Party. No, it turns out he was literally an architect, who designed buildings. Another one is the saying "feed a cold, starve a fever", which confused the heck out of me until someone explained that it's just a mnemonic for how to treat a cold or a fever. (I thought there was some kind of if/then condition going on, and that the cold and fever must be metaphors for something else.)

A couple of the examples you give are well known in the context of the King James Bible: "suffer the little children", and "The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want."

C T said...

Katharine, I've recently come across information indicating that around half the population should be getting L-methylfolate instead of folic acid because of mutations in the MTHFR gene. Nearly all kids with autism have MTHFR mutations, which affect the body's ability to transform folic acid into L-methylfolate, which is necessary for the production of many important things, including neurotransmitters. I'm typically a huge skeptic when it comes to supplements, but I'm convinced on this one. Please look into it.

lgm said...

Some of the deciphering of the idiom is cultural background and life experience. If one cant take one's experience and apply it to the context of the idiom, one has to pull out the dictionary. Fixing a chariot race asks one to choose between the ideas of repair or cheating for a desired outcome or neutering.discard neutering since the race doesnt have anatomy. Choose between repair or cheating by drawing on life experience or the movies/plays/musicals. How many races has he been in or known about where the race was repaired and a bribe offered as compensation? What would repairing a race consist of? Reject that and explore the cheating in order to get the desired outcome. How many where he has observed cheating in secrecy designed to alter outcome? How many whe re the compensation was also hidden (the bribe). When he was in SS, the idea of fixing a race is discussed in the context of elections and bribery is also noted in elections and sports .in math, in probability as loaded dice are discussed. So the evidence points to cheating as best def.

'He does not want abilities' is not an isolated sentence. One has to use the preceding sentence to enable understanding, just as one does in foreign language class at times. This is a skill that is also taught explicitly in AP Lang.

It comes down to vocab, thinking skills, and life experience. Miss one of the three and you have difficulty.

FedUpMom said...

Here's another one: "waste not, want not."