Differences (moving past a deficit-based model of Autism)

I’ve been doing some reading, on Amanda Baggs’ site, various articles linked to from Neurodiversity, and other random internet ramblings.  I’ve been trying to give my internet explorations some content, so that they’re more than just agitated stimming as I click through pages.  Social communication continues to be one of my special interests, and I keep discovering new things.  I’ve also been thinking a lot about various conversations I’ve had with a Very Famous Professor who has permitted me to come to her office hours and join in her research lab.  She’s very much into the interface between language competence and social cognition and “intelligence.”  What, exactly, the end result of all these fermenting thoughts will be I am not exactly certain, but the emphasis, the guiding factor, I think will be about various differences in special populations, specifically Autistic ones, which get misconstrued as deficits, and the implications thereof.

(Mandatory disclaimer:  Absolutely nothing I say in the following should be misconstrued as to mean that I do not consider Autism a disability.  Thank you.)

There is a widely circulating myth out there which stipulates that Autistics cannot read faces or understand emotions.  Calling this a myth may startle some of you, so permit me to lay the foundation for my explanation. First, the tests which have been used:  Morton Gernsbacher has done some research which suggests that the reason Autistic children fail to correctly identify the emotions on faces is because they are not attending to them:  when they do attend, their performance is commensurate with children matched for IQ, language, etc. Others flunk the tests but can do quite well in real-time, contextual situations.  Same with the theory of mind tests.  In my experience, by the time Autistics reach adolescences they can typically pass such a test; the frustration comes, as many report, from not necessarily being able to deploy these skills in real-time.  I will come back to this real-time problem later.

In addition, there are articles and personal anecdotes suggesting that, if anything, Autistics may be more sensitive to the emotions of others that their neurotypical peers!  Knowing how to respond appropriately or understand what is going on may be another issue, but the awareness is there.

Which is fascinating stuff, but doesn’t answer the question of why Autistics, from myself to Daniel, seem to have such profound social difficulties.  Why can’t Daniel identify his emotional state?  Why can’t I know what someone is thinking just by looking at them?

The answer is four-fold.  The first part may simply be that the child lacks the necessary vocabulary.  For years we assumed that Peter had an appropriate understanding of emotional labels, only to discover this year that he had no understanding of them and needed explicit instruction.  This is a language issues, not an issue of connectivity or emotional awareness.

The second factor has to do with different communicative styles, which Amanda has touched on wonderfully in Yep we do have nonverbal communication, elaborating further on Dialects of nonverbal language, and also picking up a double standard here.  The central thesis seems to be that there are different dialects of nonverbal language, just as there are different dialects of spoken language, and that some neurotypes are better suited to some more than others.  This can explain the difficulties Autistics have reading some neurotypicals, and that neurotypicals have reading some Autistics.  Some dialects are mutually unintelligible. How this fits in with Paul Ekamn’s research, I do not know, but this makes more sense to me.

It also raises two other points having to do with “social skills.”  One is the need for social “filler”, idle chitchat, shallow surface conversations–you know, the stuff we Aspies struggle with. Amanda notes:

I began to understand why there are so many polite conventions among non-autistic people built around sparing each other’s feelings: They can often see all that about each other, and it must be a protection and a politeness to avoid being too invasive.

And then it throws them off when I plunge right into a personal or intellectual conversation without the customary levels of protection.  Especially if they think I can read them.

This also fits in with a common conception that “human interaction is human interaction.”  That all social communication is equal, and different friends can be “separate but equal,” and either an interaction is positive or negative, that’s all there is to it.  That there’s no such thing as breadth or depth or weight when it comes to conversation and friendship.  Which then creates problems for those of us who are taught about different levels and types of friendships and interactions, and the rules associated with these, and then we go around acting on these principles only to be told quite unequivocally that we are wrong, we just need to stop thinking and start interacting, connecting.

And in a way that’s correct, and all the rules we’ve learned are artifacts of trying to make something instinctive intellectual.  Perhaps if we simply deliberately created opportunities for enjoyable connection with peers and worked on necessary language skills and aided the child in processing such interactions … perhaps that would work better than regimented “social skills” sessions or group.  I read a lecture which proposed doing exactly that, suggesting that Autistic children experience only a fraction of the total number of daily, spontaneous social connections that typical children have, which then causes and reinforces isolation.  The solution proposed was peer educating and adult facilitation, looking to give the child someone with whom they could exchange brief interactions about homework, their day, etc.

And this ties into what I was trying to talk about earlier, that human interaction is actually fairly simple at its core.  Spend time with people doing things together.  Simple as that.  I know I’ve seen it as much more complicated because I didn’t, don’t, know how to process it, and processing gets harder if you don’t speak the same language, verbal or not.  But once you’ve found someone you can communicate with, and once you know how to spend time with someone–referencing, commenting, and jointly attending, not in parallels but intersecting, connecting–it starts to build on and reinforce itself.  And that’s how friends are made.

And the best way to get there with your Autistic child or friend is to simply create those opportunities.  You might have to get creative, but it can be done, it’s essential that it happen as least as often as typical if not more often, and it will get easier with time.  Stanley Greenspan and Morton Gernsbacher have great stuff on this; Gernsbacher in particular has a quick read about reciprocity on Autistic children–hint:  their attempts at reciprocity go widely unrecognized and unrewarded, building a cycle of isolation.

All of this is great and all, but it assumes that a person is capable of real-time communication.  As Amanda highlights, this often presents as a serious challenge.  I deal with a milder version of this, and it can be incredibly frustrating in a world where everyone is supposed to be able to communicate at a drop of a hat, and all such communication is presumed to be meaningful or what one wants to say.  It is important to be sensitive to this issue and give time.  “Delayed echolaia”, for example, may not be so dysfunctional at all.

And speaking of real-time communication, I’m running out of steam.  I want to highlight a couple of things in closing.  One is the way this fits in with Donna Williams’ “fruit salad” theory of Autism.  Every person with Autism is different.  Every Autism is different.  Some people propose that language difficulties, in particular narrative issues, underlie Autism.  Others suggest Autism is an inability to connect emotions with motor plans as quickly as one might like.  Both theories intrigue me; neither is necessarily true for everyone, although I’m sure one can find their traces in this post.

Secondly I want to highlight the incredible ableism of much past and present research on Autism.  It’s not even just talk of defective brains and dim prospects, but an unconscionable lack of intellectual rigor, true understanding, or consultation of Autistics.  It makes reading papers quite difficult for me.

Finally, as I’ve spent hours in research reading amazingly eloquent, spot-on pieces by other bloggers who tie in a wide variety of issues, take unique perspectives, and come to forceful and self-sufficient conclusions, I’ve decided that as much as I might wish otherwise, this is not the blog for that.  This is a blog by a college student, a special educator, and a teenager.  It is reflective of all three.  I am not particularly interested in feminist or disability theory.  This shows.  I am more interested in understanding puzzles which present themselves to me.

And that’s okay too.  It’s another difference, not a deficit.  If this post is about anything, it is about moving past a deficit-based model of Autism.

Julia Bascom’s Differences appears here with her permission.

Julia currently blogs at flashback dream sequence.

on 07/15/10 in Autism, featured | No Comments | Read More

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