Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra

The following is a mashup of two blog posts from two very different spheres of experience, presented without comment save for this:

One is a brief, humorous account of the television-viewing habits and nerdy shorthand shared by a software developer and her sympatico husband. The other, in the inset paragraphs, is an excerpt from an explanation of a young autistic boy’s reliance on a similarly television-based shorthand, delivered by his mother to the boy’s classmates. Together all the more suggestive of the notion that “Nerdery,” as is observed below, “is a continuum.”


I’m finding comedy works best to keep me from dwelling on how much longer I’m going to be on an elliptical machine, treadmill or what-have-you. So earlier this week it was an old standby, Office Space. (If you haven’t seen it, suffice it to say that it’s sort of a cult classic for programmers.) Coincidentally, this was also the same week that someone decided to riff on one of the movie’s plot-points and steal fellow programmer’s red Swingline stapler. Twice.

And so, my foundational analogy successfully delivered, I began addressing some of the common questions that the children had asked about Bud’s behavior.

The first:  Why does Bud repeat things from TV?

“Remember how I told you that language is one of the things that’s difficult for people with autism?” I asked the wacky-haired, toaster-brained group, who nodded enthusiastically.  “Well, that has been true for Bud ever since he was really little.  He learned to talk in a very different way from most people.

“Most people learn to talk by learning one word at a time – like, first they say “Mama,” and then they say “juice.”  And then, when they get a little bit older, they start to put words together and they say things like “Juice, Mama?”  For most of us, our brains automatically learn to talk that way.

I polished off Office Space and turned back to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, riffs from which are unavoidable in the SCA. That’d be like trying to play golf without at least one wink-wink-nudge-nudge reference to Caddyshack.

“But Bud didn’t learn to talk that way.  When he was really little, around the time that most of you were saying “Juice, Mama?,” Bud didn’t talk at all.  When he wanted juice, he just walked over to me and handed me his cup.

“And then, as he got older and he started to use words, he didn’t use one word at a time.  He used his great memory to learn whole sentences that he would repeat back.  So I would ask “Do you want some juice?” and Bud would reply “Do you want some juice?”  And his brain learned that the words you say when you want juice are “Do you want some juice?”

“So, later, when he wanted juice, he would just walk up to me, hand me his cup, and say “Do you want some juice?”  And I would know what he wanted.  This way of talking is called echolalia.  It’s similar to the word ‘echo’ – hearing the same thing back after you say it.”

I heard some soft wows and ohs around the room.  I think I heard a few light bulbs click on.

Bad enough that Dennis & I have already trained each other to phrase “or”-type questions (as in, “Do you want four cheese or meat-lover’s supreme?”) without expecting the answer to be an obligatory “Yes.” Or “True” or “1” if someone’s feeling exceptionally nerdy. But then I made the mistake of remembering the phrase, “Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra.”

“Now, remember how we said that one of the things that Bud’s brain is REALLY good at remembering things?  Remember how I said he can remember whole TV shows after he’s only seen them a couple of times?  That was true even when he was really little.  So, once Bud learned that saying things like “Do you want some juice?” could actually get him some juice, he started exploring the other chunks of language that he knew, to see how he might be able to use that, too.

“In other words, when he wanted to say something, it was really hard for him to try to put words together to make sentences, but it was very easy for him to think of scripts from TV shows that were about the things he wanted to talk about.

“As Bud got older, he learned to swap out words from scripts – he’d take out the words that didn’t fit, and put in words that fit better.  And as he got even older, he started learning how to put sentences together the same way that you do – he started learning how to make language toast with his hair dryer brain.

“Now, Bud can do both kinds of talking – putting his own sentences together and using scripts.  But because of the way his brain works, it is still easier for him to use scripts.

(If you’re not a Star Trek: The Next Generation maven, here’s the schtick: The Federation has bumped into (yet another) alien race that (surprise!) just happens to be recognizably humanoid. Moreover, the Universal Translator can even babblefish-yes, I just used that as a verb-their language into English words. Problem is, it still doesn’t make sense, because the Tamarians exclusively communicate allegorically-meaning through references to stories from their history. Think of it as tribal knowledge on steroids.)

“It’s especially easier for Bud to use scripts when he is feeling very strong emotions.  When Bud is feeling sad, or angry, or frustrated, his brain is busy trying to deal with those feelings, so he doesn’t have a lot of extra energy to try to put words together.  Instead, he finds the words that somebody from TV was using when they felt the way he is feeling.

“So, how many of you have ever seen Bud get angry and heard him say ‘That’s it! I’m leaving!’?”

I shouted out the words with the tone and inflection that I knew were classic Bud.  Every hand shot up.

“Yeah, he says that a lot, doesn’t he?  That’s Minnie Mouse from The Mickey Mouse Clubhouse.  She was REALLY angry and REALLY frustrated.

At first I thought, well, we’re not that bad. But then I realized-particularly after being chagrined at how much of the “Brave, Brave Sir Robin” song I’ve forgotten-that any nerdery is a continuum. Meep! Ummm…how many restroom stops until Tanagra?

“Sometimes, when he’s frustrated because he can’t get what he wants, he might use a script from Dragon Tales.  It’s from a show where Zak and Wheezie want to play the wolf in a puppet show of The 3 Little Pigs.  If they can’t be the wolf, they don’t want to play.  So they say “No WOLF, no Zak and Wheezie!”  But Bud usually changes the words when he uses that script.  So on a day when he’s frustrated because Mrs. Nee tells him it’s not snack time, you might hear him say in the very same way as Zak and Wheezie, ‘No SNACK, no Bud-NOS.’

“But, as I said, when his emotions are really strong or really difficult, he usually doesn’t change the words at all.  He just uses the words from the script because they really capture the emotion he’s feeling.

“So if you hear him say something and the words don’t match what’s going on at all, don’t think about the words he’s using.  Try to think about the feeling that might go along with those words, and it might help you understand why Bud is saying them.  Sometimes, you can even ask him, ‘Bud, who said that?  What made them say that?’  And very often, he will explain it to you.”

A thoughtful silence filled the room.

[image via Gifts for a Geek]

related: On Literal Thinking

on 11/8/11 in featured, Language | No Comments | Read More

Leave a Reply