This is not the way I wanted to tell you this, but there are things going on I think you should know about. He’s here in the barn with me and I can’t see him in the kitchen. Do you understand the point of trying to do this? I don’t. There’s people involved in the way things will pan out for us. I don’t know about you, but there’s some seriously funny things going on. How would we be better served by this option? I could tell you, you know. From hearing your account of the possibilities, I’m beginning to think that you have a cat in there. There’s enough data to tell you otherwise of course. And I wouldn’t dream of claiming the opposite. But you never know, do you? I’ll leave and be back in awhile after the out turns in and in turns out okay.
An autistic girl I know of has been described as having disorganized thinking, based on the way she communicates. What do you think of the above paragraph I quoted? Does that reflect disorganized thinking, as far as you’re concerned? If you’re a psychiatrist, would you assume the person saying something like that is unable to think clearly?
Actually, what that is is something very simple. It’s the mechanism by which I produce language, stripped naked of any pretence of connection to my actual thoughts. I have a gigantic store of phrases and rules to combine those phrases. It took me quite a long time to develop the full understanding of there being pretty much one absolute (if broad) accepted use of language: To translate something about me into words so that someone else can translate those words into something about how they understand the world.
I had that vast repertoire of pattern-matched phrases and sentences, and could even pattern-match them to situations I was in, and make it quite convincing. What took time to develop and anchor was the connection between all those pattern-matched phrases, and things I was thinking. I never managed to fully get those patterns into my speech (or if I did, I lost that ability along the way somewhere and had to relearn it — I’m never totally clear on certain aspects of my own development). I’m far better at it with typing. I make my word-generating device (I used to call it “The Translator”) work for me these days, instead of just spinning off on its own track.
But it is incredibly easy for me to just let go of one step in the process. That step is the step between having the plausible phrase-combinations, and grabbing the correct phrases that pertain to what I’m trying to say. I developed an attachment to that step late enough that I still have all the mechanisms in place to not take that step at all. I could spin on for pages with paragraphs like the first one in this post. Or things that spun off of other words I heard, or situations, so that there was a tangential association but nothing direct, all pattern-matched with a fair degree of pattern-matching finesse. Without necessarily referencing my thoughts all that much.
Donna Williams once described it this way:
Those battling with extreme impulse control challenges who are echolalic with lots of stored phrases which fire by association or at random, have a very different battle in order to develop functional interpretive language.
To use an analogy, the first group are essentially trying to get a new born horse to walk and to walk well without clumsiness. The second group are trying to tame a young wild stallion nobody can come near so it can interact in a comprehensible and relatively intentional and controlled manner. Asking the first group what its like to tame dysfunctional language and progressively lead it to functional language (typed or spoken) is like asking someone in the hardware store to give you expertise on shoes.
The first group she is talking about, are people who may be slow to develop language, but don’t have language developing in these weird patterns all over the place, and just have to develop it much more carefully and slowly than a lot of people. The second group she’s talking about are people like me. People who have bits and pieces of language skills doing bizarre things that are at odds with language-based communication rather than just having absent language-based communication. Not that these two groups are mutually exclusive, I’d be willing to bet there’s plenty of people in both.
It’s sort of like the difference between two other things, both of which I experience on a regular basis. One of which is the inability to move, because I just can’t get the signals to reach (for instance) my arm, or can’t locate my arm in space. The other is the inability to move where I want to move because I send the signals out but my arm does something totally different — perhaps the opposite of what I intend to do, perhaps even something destructive like hitting myself. The second one requires control from two different directions and is much harder to manage. Sometimes in the second case all the control I can muster is used up on keeping myself from taking the wrong action, and I have no more energy left over to take the right one, so I end up looking outwardly as if I’m doing nothing, when inwardly I’m struggling to contain essentially a complex motor tic.
Speech is like that for me, so much so that I have little hope of disentangling it enough for speech to be useful for me in the future (not that this bothers me, I have typing, which has proved far easier to disentangle). It’s exactly like trying to ride a wild horse that goes every which way, and occasionally getting it to go vaguely where I want to go, but if I get one sentence of what I mean in the middle of ten that I don’t mean, nobody’s going to be able to pick out the difference, and I can’t easily filter for it. As it is, I just suppress most of the spoken echolalia and vocal tics if other people are present (and not all autistic people can do even that much), and that’s the most control I can hope for wresting from speech.
The “disorganized” sentences quoted above are just my speech mechanisms stripped naked of all intent to communicate. That is the raw uncensored materials from which I build my real sentences. But it’s a language mechanism. It’s not reflective of the pattern of my thoughts, and any attempt to view it as such would lead to total confusion about what I am thinking. I have other language mechanisms, too, requiring more effort and sophistication, but still not adding up to communication (and I have others that require less effort and look far more disjointed and irrelevant). I have a whole repertoire of language-patterns that have nothing to do with connecting those language-patterns to my thinking. I could easily demonstrate most of them, I’ve lived much of my life using a combination of all of them to get by. (By the way, if a person’s receptive language ever tests as far far far below their apparent expressive language — which mine did when I was initially tested as a child — that’s a major warning sign that something like this could be going on.)
The most important thing to know about this is that thought is not language and my perception of the world is quite a bit clearer than a person would imagine if they were to only read the raw output of my language mechanisms (language mechanisms that I have trouble at times wresting control from). Another important thing to note is that a person can have this kind of language trouble alongside actual communication, and the signal-to-noise ratio can vary greatly.
But this is language. Thinking and perception of the world is something different than just the language a person produces, at least if the person is a person like me, or like many other people with the same language-processing differences. I can perceive the world quite accurately and in a non-disorganized way, this is probably demonstrable through non-language-based assessments, I do so largely without the use of language to help me do it, and blurred and tangled language on my part does not reflect my take on reality, just my brain’s take on language production (I still can’t figure out why so many people have thought and language so intertwined in their heads that they think that if one is messed up the other will be).
I fear for the safety of the little girl who has just been diagnosed with that by a clinician clearly ignorant of the varieties that autistic language differences can take. People who have the sort of difficulty I do with language need to learn how to steer our language production in the direction of meshing reasonably well with our thoughts. Too often what happens is we get trained to conform our language to what someone else thinks we must (or should) be thinking, in the assumption that by changing our language, they are actually organizing our disorganized thoughts for us. What that really does is push language even further away from communication for us, and into the realm of repeating what other people want us to say.
Instead of manipulating our language while claiming to be making our thoughts clearer, people need to teach us in some way (and there are many ways to do it, many of which are not things most people would think of in terms of teaching language) how to take our ability to repeat phrases (or sentences, paragraphs, songs, whatever) and make the words we repeat as connected as possible to the things we’re actually thinking. The things done ostensibly to help people who have trouble discerning reality or “disorganized thinking”, are light-years away from, sometimes polar opposite of, what autistic people with this form of language difficulty actually need to learn.
This is an issue of a gap between thought/perception (including thought that isn’t necessarily consciously perceivable to the thinker, of course) and language, and a gap between language and communication-of-thought. It is not an issue of a gap between thought/perception and reality.
From what I can work out I have superficially normal verbal speech, with various communication and expression difficulties. My older son has more differences with his verbal speech and displays a lot of echolalia. He seems to either take various phrases and apply them in different situations, or he’ll hear a word and then answer with a phrase he’s remembered. So to give an example of the latter I told him “come on, time to change nappy” and he replied “come on, it’s time to go home …. bus …. Dave” which is what the nursery staff say to him. With the former, if he doesn’t want to be somewhere he’ll sing the “time to go home” song (if any of you know Andy Pandy it’s that one). When he was losing his balance on a train he said “you can do it … aaahh!” which is what he heard when I was encouraging my younger son to walk and younger son would fall to the ground. When we’re passing our front door he looks at it and says “we’re going to the shops” which is true some, but not all of the time, but it’s what he heard me say one day when he was looking at the door.
Sometimes he’ll say something and I don’t understand what he means. But it’s getting clearer now what he’s trying to tell us.
Seven time seven is 49. The pearl is in the river. Mr. Turkey is two times good for you. How much wood would a woodchuck chuck? I believe Fielding Melish is a traitor to his country. Badadada. Badadada. Along with many many other stock phrases, these are integral parts of my thought process. Sometimes I say them out loud around people I am comfortable with. Each one indicates a type of thought and keeps me anchored enough in language to figure out what it is I need to say. I suspect that NTs do this somewhat with songs, though they don’t usually respect or recognize these other forms. I know I use songs a lot to tell me what I’m feeling and thinking, but also lines from a movie I saw when I was 6, facts learned in geography class, classifications of rocks and minerals, etc. For so many years, I thought I was on the border of schizophrenia, I waited to cross over into that “disorganized thinking”. I didn’t understand until I read Donna Williams’ Nobody Nowhere. I was 40 years old. Thank you so much for writing this.
My son spoke nothing but echolalia until the 4th grade. Fortunately, his output on paper was such that he often had a’s and b’s. I think he is probably still echolalic, but sounds much more sophisticated as he has a broad range of “scripts” and can decipher his thoughts into the language most of us use. I used to tell his teachers that “language was a second language” to him…and got that glassy eyed stare. He DOES think in pictures.
One day I was thinking, and remembering how he related to trains and mechanical things. It’s like most people have a sea of language and can “fish” for and find the words they want, or at least others that will do. For Ben, it seems he has to take the train to the right station. It’s much more structured and time consuming. Sometimes you just have to make due with the station you arrive at, as the station you need has not yet been built.
Back to thinking in pictures, one of the saddest things I was told was that Ben did not play, did not imagine. I have since figured out he does play and imagine, but instead of “talking”, he “sees” what he is imagining. He skips the step of orally triggering his imagination, and goes right into placing himself in the middle of a movie, without language. In reality, his imagination is probably more pure, and more like what we think of when we think of true imagination. (Can you see the bubble above his head, filled with pictures?) It made sense to me that when he was little, when he had a really good time, he wanted to “go backwards”, ie, rewind the tape.
Thanks for letting me get it out of my head. Once I say it, I understand it better.
P.S.–Ben never takes notes, and often ends up getting 100’s on his tests. It’s the “journals” and other stupid things he doesn’t have the mind for that bring his grades down to C’s.
thanks for some seriously useful metaphors, amanda & comments. (always surprising how much work a good one can get done.)
Wow, I’ve got quite a few old writings that sound very much like your sample paragraph.
This is from a notebook I kept when I was 16:
When I speak, it is as if the rain has stopped, and we are being obscured by what we cannot perceive. Why am I being this, this terrible arsenal of undiscovered realms, those beautiful, hopelessly complicated structures which form the heart of everything from crystals to thoughts of who knows what. I don’t know, is it because of one thing or another? Tomorrow, when the closet door is shut, and I become, once again, nothing, will I remember how to find this door? The keyhole is small, but when I crouch and look through it I am assailed by the brilliance of a thousand rainbows.
I wasn’t trying to write a story or anything in particular when I wrote that…I was just sitting there producing words, putting them together in ways that I thought were somehow pretty, I guess. I can’t remember exactly what I was thinking at the time, but I do know that my thinking has never been as “disorganized” as the above paragraph probably sounds.
There seem to be so many different things that come before something that is seen already as fundamental by people. (Yes this is communicatory, it just looks really vague.)
…that sort of paragraph is some of the stuff that can happen when your focus is not on the particular kind of language-creation that most people want you to be doing. There are many other things that can happen, that come before linking up language into concepts that are in your head. And most people link up language to concepts in their heads without any difficulty at all, and view that as the most “basic” of language production. When for people like us (and, I wonder, some of the people who are said to have “disorganized thoughts”?) things can go even more basic than that when it comes to producing words.
…and there perception of all kinds of qualities and patterns of things that comes before what most people consider the “basic” perceptions of what is in front of them.
And so forth, with all kinds of things that are considered “basic” thought/movement/perception/language/etc by others.
And to me a lot of that stuff is more interesting (and more immediately accessible) than what they consider “basic” stuff, which is all overlaid over the top of the stuff I find easier to come by and more interesting.
Thank you very much for this discription. It has helped me greatly.
I have a NO mechanism, which “explains” this characteristic property of ASD brains (with only modest handwaving).
It has to do with connectivity in a neural network, and proximity to the percolation threshold. That is the next blog I will post, but it is getting kind of long, and so it might be a while.
Briefly (and unfortunately simplisticly), the ASD brain is characterized by reduced long term connectivity, but more numerous and locally connected smaller elements (minicolumns). In principle, you can get to the “same” endpoint via smaller steps, but you have to be more careful each step along the way. “Simple” things, like math, physics, things that are constant and predictable are relatively “easy”, than the vastly more complicated things like how NTs interact with each other.
Breaking down a complex task into simple steps allows (forces) the fidelity/validity of each step to be analyzed. NTs have the ability to make a “leap of faith”, to make a connection and conclusion without going through the intervening steps. Unfortunately, if you don’t go through the intervening steps, you have no way of knowing if there actually is a logical train of thought that gets you to the final conclusion.
I think that is what happened when NTs decided that the Sun went around the Earth. They had some data, and so they lept to a conclusion, a conclusion that they couldn’t change in the face of new data which showed it to be wrong. Without access to the process by which they reached that conclusion, they can’t understand it to be wrong and so modify it.
And there was also for me sort of an intermediate thing… like grafting bits of word-patterns onto the bits of things I was actually experiencing, which led to interesting poems and songs (often using words I didn’t know the meaning of). A couple examples:
holding to a fast wandering
to righten a pole
brighten a hold tighten
sights of everyone
where are the roads and
sand of prior days
among the hand
trying through the maze
lays too wry to ponder
ringlets fall anon
meandering to know
what we see is true
through the side pulling
lingers for a flash
soul to guard alone
frighten here and know
planned anew of droll
hazy wrinkled sky
kite flapping through
raising tired kittens in the night
lightly sow in neither
there is no other
discover atolls on land
trough of outer cover
falling over silver rays
dry the ashen fingers
laughing tightly off
enough to hold the cracks
unfolding back in black
lacking mirrors falling under
gone the land that wonders where
here we leave and freely seek
speaking solely an inkling
in turn learning to fold
burning what we saw
pause ready to map the world
paws upturned and whirled behind
leave the droplets in your fur
lashing tail wailing dashing
trailing filmy miracles cling
over where the aspen were
prying ardent certainty
tainted not but gnarled so
faintly lit in folding thought
fewer from the inside saw
raw and gliding slightly outward
nothing but a tangled knot
Touch me and form me and find us a mind
There’s an indigent feel in the air
To toss and to travel the findings unwind
To the purpose and meaning of where
My mind it is traveling over the seams
Of the world in the world of the dead
They’re hovering laughing inviting my dreams
To the spinning of clouds in my head
Cherish the dark and try to make another world
Hold it inside and speak of light
Holding the torture forming under others’ words
While the meaning it cries to be all right
Forming and fluttering under the sky
Lies a heritage burning and bold
Latching it into the meaning of why
Lies a future unmeant to be told
A traveler walking inside of the world
Forms an integral part of the sky
A meaningless finder of meaning uncurled
And the trick to be part of the why
A morning and evening empty of time
Like a world that is meant to be said
The forming of reasoning splendor of rhyme
Touching basis of moral instead
A polishing flavor of form and of light
Holding bases for true lag beyond
A mourning of density shining and white
Folding untold missed distance beyond
Soaring and suffering the highest eagle fly
Looking unknown upon the world
Guiding and lying under rocks and evil guise
For the eyes that would help will be unfurled
A temperature reigning inside of the fields
Falling infinite structure on man
A tighter rope forming that pulls on the wheels
And inciting the deepest of plans
For every folder that folds on itself
Falls the weight of the preface of time
Inserting the memory finding itself
In the infinite side of the line
I am the darkened sky that shines before the sun
Witness and daughter of the time
Follow a northern path insisting on the run
And the world spins into the others shine
A follower dragging her heels on the ground
And insisting on sadness and joy
A watcher that watching the sights that are found
Forming anger of love as a toy
They’re pressing inside of the closest of minds
For the world that is meant to be lost
Hoping the pattern of patterns unwinds
And the real are not touched by the cost
High falls the wanderer into the waking world
Flight over wonder from the star
Following close inside the wryest anger whirled
For the world forming eyes of what they are
With fooling and bowing and nothing is there
Save the ghosts of the ones that have fled
The hooligans grabbing and spinning around
Pouring babble and nonsense instead
Tumbling scrambling under the light
That would speak from the crack in the floor
Performing and dancing in darkness and fright
While the audience clamors for more
I hold the voice that speaks in other people’s words
Twisting and crying in the sun
Finding a safety here inside the waiting world
While I wait for the madness is undone
That second one especially does actually say a good deal of what I was experiencing, but it’s through patterns of words that sort of glance sideways off of bits of what I was experiencing, rather than the kind of words I am writing now.
Those glancing-sideways words are pretty good for poems or (in that case) songs, and I’ve found them to be mutually comprehensible among some other people who handle or have handled language this way (i.e. they can get what I was up to and I can get what they were up to).
Amanda, you are utterly wonderful! Thank you for this site.
That was an incredibly interesting and useful post for me. Our guy has this odd speech habit where he gets half way through a sentence and then stops and replaces the phrase he has just said with another similar phrase. It fits the model of consciously selecting from a list very well.
The idea that linguistic units are stored as-is and become the determiners (rather than the instruments) of what we communicate has been around for a long time under the general heading of “language is virus.” It is generally assumed, in NT analysis, however, that the thought process should (and does) mold itself to conform in real time to the utterances that are based on these stored linguistic units. But what I understand you to be saying (and what was said at Processing In Parts) is that it is possible for the stream of utterances that is built from this collection of linguistic units to be significantly different from the stream of thought or the patters of thought in the person who is generating the stream of utterances. That makes a lot of sense at the gut level, and also leaves me with a lot to think about.
One of the ways I have been thinking about “creativity”, and in particular inventing, is that in effect it is a “search” among potential “brain states”, that satisfy certain “criteria”.
The “brain state” criteria are the pattern recognition stuff that determines if it is a “good” idea, or a “bad” idea. There always being vastly more “bad” ideas than “good” ideas.
“I have since figured out he does play and imagine, but instead of “talking”, he “sees” what he is imagining. He skips the step of orally triggering his imagination, and goes right into placing himself in the middle of a movie, without language.”
That’s exactly what I do, especially when I’m writing my stories. I get scenes in my head, as though I’m watching a film, or through a window and I then write what I see. I never thought it was different.
Hmmm. I’ve always envied folks who can produce that type of writing that I suppose would be deemed “stream of consciousness” (though by virtue of definition that description is probably exactly incorrect). A phenomenon that’s rather the opposite occurs with me; I have an *inkling* of the kinds of words I want, and experience them as an almost tangible space that I could mime the perimeter of with my hands (part of the reason I do so much flailing about when I’m searching for words, I suppose), and seem to know intuitively the rhythm those words should have in order to fit in the space — down to the very number of syllables. Actually coming up with enough words to fill the slots is the difficulty for me, because I edit *as* I write, not after. Meaning, I wish I could just get words onto the page so I could have the pleasure of honing them down (editing is one of my very favorite pastimes, secondary only maybe to lying on grass in full sunlight near a body of water), but instead the text emerges honed, so I tend to not be as prolific as I want. Meaning, it’s hard for me to produce enough words so that I have extra words to edit. (In poetry, anyway. Obviously I reiterate quite a lot in explicative prose. But poetry should be true enough so as not to require reiteration.)
I suppose it’s why I have such an easy time with poetry in *form*. While I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea that form poetry is better (and most of my poetry is certainly not written in form, or classic form at least), it comes easier for me than it does for a lot of poets because it works as a prolificacy tool. Whereas other poets find sonnets, for example, very restrictive because they have to wrench and crunch their pre-existing words into a neat little rhyming package and they end up substituting words that fit better but don’t have as precise a meaning, and ultimately they fail to say what they wanted to say. I tend to write *more* freely when I’m creating a sonnet, because I have x number of slots to fill and that helps me conjure the words in the first place, and I can then insert them into the correct slots according to syllabic rhythm. And even though quite a few of my sonnets follow all the rules of rhyme and iambic pentameter, they never sound singsongy like a lot of forced sonnets do. In fact, folks rarely realize that my sonnets are sonnets unless I tell them.
So, um . . . . . . . . aw, hell. I forget what my original comment was supposed to be. Guess I’ll go flail about for a bit.
This makes sense to me. What you’re talking about with sentences, I do with words a lot. It looks from outside like aphasia, and I guess for all practical purposes it is, and people probably think I’m just a bit vague.
In that last sentence, I lost the word that comes after ‘practical’. I had to string my way through “use?” “terms?” “purposes!” to get to it. If my brain was wired in such a way that I had to say the words out loud to get there, I’d no doubt get a very different reaction from people.
But what it feels like is: I can feel the shape of the word that comes next, and I know there *is* a correct word, but I’ve misplaced the label, the bit that’s what the word actually *is*, how it sounds, how it’s written.
And I’ll cast around for the right word for a while, and if I can’t find it then my brain does a background search on it, I think. An hour, a day, a week later, there’ll be a ‘ding!’ (not a literal ding, no) and my brain will cough up the right word into my conscious mind. By that time I may or may not remember why I needed the word – sometimes all I’ll remember is that I forgot that word at some point, and here it is.
[To Evonne at comment 14: I feel the same way about formal verse. (I used to think that the sign of a successful sonnet is one where you don’t realise it’s a sonnet until you stop to count.) It’s not about putting square pegs in a round hole, it’s finding the round pegs you want. Only sometimes the appropriate round peg doesn’t exist, and sometimes a round hole isn’t what you needed in the first place.]
About echolalia: sometimes just before I’m going to sleep, I hear ‘voices’. They’re how I imagine echolalia is like. A long stream of unordered sentences and phrases, in various different speaking voices. It happens most often if I’ve had a lot of social contact that day – frequently I’ll recognise the speaking voice I’m hearing as someone I actually did hear that day. Once I’m actually asleep, I’ll get music and narrative structure too, and it’s really frustrating that I can’t do those as well when I’m awake.
My twin children might fall into the two groups of people described: my son is aquiring language slower than most his age, but everything he says matches some obvious meaning in his environment.
My daughter will chatter away, and if you stop to listen carefully, you realize she’s quoting this or that or the other video or book she’s familiar with. I point out a train, and she starts quoting Green Eggs and Ham. Or she echoes back what you just said to her.
They’re both getting speech therapy in school; when they were admitted, we were asked if it would be OK for them to share speech therapy sessions. We had no objection to them sharing a speech therapist for the session with another child, but a therapy session geared toward one would be near useless for the other.
Anyway, so that’s an interesting thing about my twins. The interesting thing I’ve noticed this week is that she is pushing him when he’s standing on the carpet and he’s falling over, and then he’s pushing her off the coffee table and she’s landing on her feet perfectly, like a little orange cat. Gravity is a liability for him, and gravity is a lovely tool for her.
Oh, and is anyone else very fond of the ST:TNG episode “Darmok”?
Vassilissa — that thing when you’re falling asleep is very similar to one of the the things in my things there should be words for post: “The vivid sensory echoes of things that have been perceived throughout the day, that flash unwillingly and unstoppably and “as if real” throughout one’s head when overload yet given half a chance to rest, and that may be so real-seeming as to be highly confusing until it’s over.”
That can happen (as you describe) during the usual hypnagogic hallucination period before sleep, but can also happen when more awake than that.
“Instead of manipulating our language while claiming to be making our thoughts clearer, people need to teach us in some way (and there are many ways to do it, many of which are not things most people would think of in terms of teaching language) how to take our ability to repeat phrases (or sentences, paragraphs, songs, whatever) and make the words we repeat as connected as possible to the things we’re actually thinking.”
Could you give me an example? If you’ve already discussed this, I apologize.
About thought and language being different things:
A few years ago when I had short spell (~10 minutes) where I lost all language (triggered by severe exhaustion). My thought process felt the same as usual — I only found out when I tried to ask someone something.
It was perfectly clear to me what I wanted, but no words would come to mind to represent it (not even wrong words). It was like ‘drawing a blank’, just for all concepts/thoughts at the same time. And yet I never would have noticed if I hadn’t tried to speak to someone (and have it totally fail like that).
I’m wondering how one would go about teaching someone else to connect or associate words and language to their thoughts.
I was thinking about this entry again yesterday, and one thing that occurred to me was the fact that the kinds of writing and lyrics I started finding myself attracted to in adolescence seemed to fit patterns similar to the ones I’d come up with when I was in the “grafting bits of word-patterns onto the bits of things I was actually experiencing” mode. For example, I was a big fan of Harlan Ellison’s writing starting at around age 16…his writing is very descriptive and experimental (and often disturbingly, graphically violent, though I wasn’t so much focused on the violent imagery as on the word-pictures and patterns I found in his writing. And not all of it was violent). For an example of what I’m talking about, here’s an excerpt from a short story called “Neon”:
Every neon sign in Times Square had a new color added to its spectrum. It seemed to reside somewhere between silver and orange, bled off into the ultraviolet and the infrared at one and the same time, had tinges of vermillion at the top and jade at the bottom and resembled no other color ever seen by human eyes…It smelled like a forest of silver pines after the rain, with scents of camomile, juniper, melissa, and mountain gentain thrown in. It felt like the flesh of a three-week-old baby’s instep. It tasted like lithograph ink, but there are people who like the taste of lithograph ink.
Someone said it was the exact color of caring.
That kind of thing influenced a lot of my writing (and thinking, when I was in the process of trying to come up with ways to describe things in words, which took — and still takes — a considerable amount of mental bandwidth) as an adolescent. I was particularly attracted to long, flowery descriptions of things that were difficult to describe, or that seemed to have contradictory attributes that made words tremendously hard to apply to them. I’d read something like the Ellison passage quoted above and then find myself recycling little bits and pieces of similar phrasing and vocabulary.
I think at least part of what you describe is something that is very common to lots of people who have no recognisable speech-oddities (myself I was somewhat “little professor-ish” as a child, and went from sounds to complete sentences at around 2 without any intermediate stage – so though never noticeably speech-different my development wasn’t exactly textbook).
Especially the notion of words or/and phrases just floating around in the conscious when not thinking about anything in particular, or not especially engaging the “language output” module, is something I would guess is very, very common.
The thing that becomes interesting is why, and how, this probably very normal way of functioning, becomes outward echolalia? Or stiffled, pronounced inward echolalia for that matter.
Which is where I would like to bring in the concept of narrative. Sometimes the language modules are just free-floating for me. But very often I string them together in a narrative, and most often what I have is something like a story-book with a narrative PLUS these free-floating words, phrases and images running parallel, sort of like subtitles.
I grew up in a household where it was the norm that you “talked to the dog”, ie narrated what you were doing to no-one in particular. I’ve since wondered how much that influenced my development – I can’t remember that I was ever encouraged to “talk to myself”, but I certainly wasn’t discouraged! I used to tell “stories”, try out phrases and words and narrative-connections between language snippets on the dog and my toys, both audible and silently.
Then I went to a school that for the first years really focused on the telling and re-telling of stories.
I wonder if AC children in less narrative-intense/focused environments are slower/more obviously different in their language use?
Eh, got sidetracked here a bit, there’s another thing I wanted to mention about “free floating bits of vocabulary”:
Foreign languages. And grammar of foreign languages.
My family is alternately impressed and bored sick by my deciphering of languages I don’t know (but related to languages I do know). It’s just something I do, I can’t help it. With the aid of even a very limited phrase-book or word-book I’ve so far picked up enough Polish, Slovak/Czech, Romanian, Estonian and French&Italian to be able to read signs and menus without much trouble. (My “real” languages, in order, are Swedish, English and Finnish. German I have actually studied, but am not fluent at all in.) With a little more exposure Latvian and Lithuanian isn’t impossible, but Hungarian seems hopeless. Anything written in cyrillic (or Greek) is very hard, though I do know the alphabet.
The thing with this is that I just can’t stop searching for the meaning of foreign words when I see them – it’s somewhat like a crossword puzzle. I know that word in that language, this word in another and that grammatical construct in a third – now what does that sign in a fourth language mean?
I can’t see a bi- or tri-lingual sign without picking apart the difference in words used and grammatical structure between the languages.
None of this means that I find it easy to actually *learn* languages, in a communicative sense. It’s just that I seem to have an instinct for picking apart words and their grammatical place. And it leads to these slightly absurd situations when my SO and I are driving in say Poland and I’ll tell him “we should turn right after that billboard advertising furniture wholesale / at that sign that says ‘State forestry school’ “, [the latter might well say “school-about-wood belonging to state” if translated exactly – I told you grammar is fascinating!] and he goes “Whaa?! Where?! Which?”.
Thank you for this post. I stumbled upon it a bit late, but it has helped me to better understand one of my sons in particular. He is, from what I understand in relation to other Autistic people, very echolalic, although he has traditional language as well to communicate the basics of his needs and wants. I also have his twin, who stuggles with pragmatics, but has the incredible vocabulary that covers it all up. Unfortunately, as a parent, new to the world of Autism, there is VERY little information about teaching an echolalic child how to use language in a way that is empowering with out asking him to conform, and forget about finding a real live professional for guidance on this topic. So, I just want to thank you again, because your words are very meaningful to me and my sons, and their future lives.
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