Language is Where You Look For It

I am easily fascinated.

Much of my life is a process of serial intense attention to one thing, immediately followed by something else. At times it seems to be a good thing, like when I am fascinated by the task I’m supposed to be doing and pay intense attention to it. At other times my fascination is a deep preoccupation with the flight of a bumble bee or the pattern on the back of a snake.

Some fascinations are singular and very brief, others are recurring and long-lasting.

Autism is one of the long-term recurring fascinations. Its particularly captivating because of all that we know we don’t know about it. I’m intrigued by the variety of ways it affects people who have it.

I recently chatted with the mother of a young woman who has autism and who, as a child, would only communicate through art. Of course, at the beginning, it was not at all clear that the girl was trying to communicate or what she might be trying to say, but this girl is particularly bright and was able to make her pictorial messages more explicit.

The ability to communicate is such an intrinsic part of what makes us human that it is hard for most of us to imagine what life is like for people who can’t understand us and are not understood by us. We are always communicating. We use words, but the clothes we wear, how we drive and who we choose as friends also communicate something — whether consciously or not.

Most of us easily learn and intuitively understand these non-verbal languages, but people who have autism don’t. People with autism are speaking to us, but we have not yet learned their language.

At the Celebration of Teaching & Learning yesterday, Peter Fauastino, President-Elect of the New York Association of School Psychologists (NYASP), said that everything a person with autism does should be viewed as communication and we need to try to understand what they are trying to say. Doing so will draw on all of our ability to think in pictures and in metaphors, to read non-verbal cues. It will require us to discover what we might be trying to say if we were acting the same way someone else is.

It won’t be easy. The language of autism is not systematic, there is no grammar and syntax. It will be more like learning to read Chinese while someone is screaming at you in Esperanto.

I am going to try.

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2 Responses to Language is Where You Look For It

  1. Its great that you show a great interest In autism, If more people were like this there would be a great awareness of autism and the spectrum autism is on. My son has Asperger’s and I write the blog..A boy with Aspergers your welcome anytime. I think you may find tthe blog kinda interesting as Aspergers is on the autistic spectrum yet not as well known.
    Ps You have created a fantastic blog.

  2. johnslat says:

    Dear Deven,
    Have you heard of Temple Grandin:
    Ten years ago, Oliver Sacks wrote a profile for The New Yorker about an extraordinary woman whose triumph over her developmental disorder was profound but who still felt completely alienated from human emotion and interaction. With people, she said, she is a self proclaimed “anthropologist on Mars,” a phrase Sacks adopted for the title of his bestselling collection. Among animals, however, she is completely at home.

    Besides being autistic, Temple Grandin earned her Ph.D. in animal science from the University of Illinois; went on to become an associate professor at Colorado State University; and wrote two books on autism, including the seminal Thinking in Pictures. When Dustin Hoffman went to research his role in Rain Man, Temple was the person he contacted.

    One of the most celebrated and effective animal advocates on the planet, Grandin revolutionized animal movement systems and spearheaded reform of the quality of life and humaneness of death for the cows, pigs, and chickens that Americans eat. Through Grandin Livestock Systems, she works with the country’s fast food purveyors-McDonald’s, Kentucky Fried Chicken, Wendys, and Burger Kingm to monitor the conditions of animal facilities worldwide.

    Temple Grandin is a towering figure for our times. She has devoted the last 30 years to studying animals and making their lives better, has been profiled everywhere everywhere from 48 Hours to The New York Times, is a sought-after speaker on autism and animal rights, and is considered one of the world’s leading academic theoreticians in her field.

    Temple Grandin has redefined society’s perception of what is possible for autistics.

    An amazing lady; a wonderful writer.

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