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.