Language is Where You Look For It

03/08/2009

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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