Action Words

Among the many ideas that have been put forward in recent years to explain an apparent increase in the autistic population is the concept of assortative mating.  According to this hypothesis, today’s society gives people with autistic traits much more opportunity to pair up.  Universities, tech companies, and other geek-friendly environments provide the happy hunting grounds for those who might in previous years have been unable to find compatible mates.  These couples then pass on their autistic characteristics to the next generation.

This explanation fits well with Andrew Lehman’s perspective on autism as determined largely by sexual selection and hormonal influences.  As he has noted, there are many clues that enable those with autistic traits to recognize one another, which he compares to “gaydar.”  These clues are not necessarily limited to the behaviors most commonly associated with autism; on the contrary, they may include very subtle similarities in word choices and speech patterns, and some of them may take place almost entirely on a subconscious level.

A research study recently published by the Association for Psychological Science indicates that people see themselves as more or less compatible with others based on language styles, such as how they use pronouns.  This study caught my interest because I’d had a conversation with Mark Stairwalt on this topic last year, after I noticed that we both had a tendency to omit leading pronouns in casual conversations.  I mentioned that this seemed consistent with the autistic primary-process style of thinking, discussed by Mark here and by Andrew here, in which—as noted by Gregory Bateson— there is more focus on relationships and their patterns than on people and things.  Starting a sentence with a verb and no subject indicates a pattern of thought in which the action itself is seen as more significant than specifying who did or should do it.

As I discussed in my post last week, there is research to support a conclusion that autistics tend to focus more on outcome than intention.  I wonder if this difference might go even farther, harkening back to an ancient era when social structures were much less complicated than they are today.  Perhaps it would be fair to say that the autistic style of thinking is one that focuses on the action more than on the identity of the particular member of the tribe who happens to be performing it.

Andrew has noted that many autistics have a strong creative focus and enjoy getting attention for their work, which he compares to narcissism. That’s a term derived from the classical myth of Narcissus, who thought himself so beautiful that he fell in love with his own reflection.  In contrast, autistics tend not to concern themselves overmuch with the details of their physical appearance or to seek attention by other superficial means, such as wearing fashionable clothes or driving a popular car.  The focus, once again, stays on the action being performed.  To the extent that a comparison to the Narcissus myth reasonably can be made, it might be better described as falling in love with one’s work, not with one’s image.

Perhaps, as the study on language styles indicates, we may be relying on subtle clues such as pronoun use to identify others who have a similar focus on action and outcome—to find other members of the tribe.

on 02/9/11 in featured, Language | No Comments | Read More

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