Tag Archives: receptive language

A bunch of stuff that needed saying

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The following stuff is important stuff I wrote elsewhere on the net. If some of what I'm saying doesn't make sense, ignore it, it's just context that I'm not able to describe right now. The main thrust of what I'm saying should make sense without understanding the full context of what I wrote. And I can't rewrite it all right now for this blog. So the following is pretty much as I wrote it. Also sorry for all caps in places, it was because where I was writing it I couldn't use other forms of emphasis. And please don't assume that this is all about autism. Everyone always assumes that everything I say is all about autism. It isn't. Most of it isn't. Not even the stuff that talks about autism is all about autism. I am fed up with just about every such assumption because my world isn't made up of only or mainly autistic people and when I talk about things I always get replies saying “This applies to people without autism too” and I want to say “no shit Sherlock, that's what I meant in the firs

This turned into a long post, and it may not apply to the people I’m replying too, but this conversation just brought up a lot of things I’ve been thinking but having trouble saying.

Thank you for writing that. It’s really important.

Also another point I want to make. There are many autistic people whose best method of communication is nonverbal. By which I mean, not speech, not writing. Some of us this is true of, can communicate well by speech or typing also. Some of us can’t. But we usually have trouble with receptive language — either some of the time, all of the time, or especially, during the early formative years of our lives. I’m one such person.

Most people don’t know this because the current theories of autism all involve us being terrible at nonverbal communication. By which people mean, terrible at one specific kind of nonverbal communication that most nonautistic people are good at. Also, most autistic people who can talk about their experiences in words, are (or believe themselves to be) bad at nonverbal communication, and their experiences get seen as applying to all of us, when this is not true.

So for many of us — nonverbal communication, and the world of things outside of words, are our best way of communicating. Whether we can also use words or not. I wrote about one such group of autistic people in my contribution (“Untitled”) to the Loud Hands anthology. Because I want people to know we exist. Because I want other people like me to know they aren’t alone, in an autistic community made up mostly of people who experience themselves as terrible at nonverbal communication. Where people even say that autistic communities are communities where people can use text or other forms of language, rather than having to deal with nonverbal communication. Even though there’s plenty of us who do better in person, BECAUSE we communicate best nonverbally, because words, whether we can do them or not, whether we are or seem good at them or not, are so hard and so difficult and so painful to keep using.

There are entire groups of autistic people out there who communicate with each other using our own unique forms of body language that are different from nonautistic body language, different from other autistic people’s body language, specific to ourselves, specific to each other. Who communicate best reading each others writing, looking for the patterns that exist between the words, rather than inside the words themselves. Who communicate best by exchanging objects, by arranging objects and other things around ourselves in ways that each other can read easier than we can read any form of words. Who share the most intimate forms of communication, outside of words, outside of anything that can be described easily, in between everything, seeing each other to the core of our awareness. Who see layers upon layers of meaning outside of any form of words.

In “Untitled” I was writing about my favorite communication ever, my video chats with AnneC (and her cats, when they show up, which Shadow absolutely loves communicating with me over video and reminds her every Friday at the right time because he loves it so much). I don’t necessarily do the best at visual stuff the way most people think of it. But I can see the patterns of movement in other people, including cats, whether or not I see them well in the usual forms of visual perception. And those patterns of movement tell me more than any word ever could.

I can even read nonautistic people fairly well at times — just not in the ways nonautistic people read each other well. That’s one of the problems with nonautistic research into autistic people’s abilities to understand nonverbal communication. Most of it relies on the understanding and use of words at the same time as understanding the nonverbal communication. And most of it relies on the kinds of nonverbal communication that nonautistic people are most aware of. This frustrates me to no end — how can people research forms of understanding that they don’t themselves have and therefore they don’t themselves understand even exists? I’ve actually told researchers ways they can research autistic people’s understanding of nonverbal communication without having to resort to the faulty methods they usually use.

And one researcher told me, when I asked, that every parent of an autistic child she ever met said that their child picked up easily on things like stress in the household, but that SHE ACTUALLY DISREGARDED IT UNTIL I ASKED HER, BECAUSE SHE’D BEEN TAUGHT THAT AUTISTIC PEOPLE COULDN’T READ BODY LANGUAGE. I’m totally serious. If researchers are that biased themselves, how can they possibly hope to even notice that we can understand things they assume we don’t understand?! I taught that researcher a bunch of very simple ways to test that without relying on the painfully stupid research methods that guarantee researchers will find only what they expect to find — relying on us to use and understand words, relying on our understanding of actors and stage conventions rather than real people’s real nonverbal communication, relying on nonautistic people’s limited ability to read autistic body language, all sorts of other flaws that seem obvious but that researchers themselves seem never to notice. So hopefully she will set up some real experiments that show our real abilities.

Anyway. Back to what I was saying. There’s entire subgroups of autistic people out there _ not just my own — who rely on nonverbal means of understanding the world, and nonverbal means of communication. That’s one reason I usually put myself in my videos — because I know that certain other autistic people will be able to read me like a book, even if nonautistic people usually can’t. And that nonverbal communication is a crucial part of my videos. (See why the entire first half of “In My Language” has no words in it. I was trying to make a point about the best way I communicate, the best way many people communicate, autistic or not, verbal or not. Mostly lost on people, who think it’s a video about autism. It’s not. It’s a video about communication and understanding and personhood, that happens to be made by an autistic person. Big difference. I told CNN why I really made the video, and they left out that part of the interview in favor of putting their words in my mouth. I think my real intent was too political for them.)

Anyway. I may be a writer, but my real best form of communication has nothing to do with words. I use words because I have to. Because most people won’t understand me if I don’t. I don’t use them because I like them, or because I “can’t do nonverbal communication so text is best for me”, or any of the usual reasons most people assume. If I could never use language again, spoken or written, I would be really happy. But the world won’t let me do that, so I carry on using a means of communication that is outright painful for me.

I don’t know the people in the video, but I know that the way their bodies move makes intuitive sense to me and communicates things whether they intend it to be so or not. (The forms of nonverbal communication I understand best are unintentional, in fact. That’s one reason tests using actors don’t work on me. I know an autistic woman who failed a test of nonverbal communication because it used actors and she kept describing their real feelings instead of their acted ones. What this says about nonautistic people’s understanding of nonverbal communication is… interesting.) Whether they are able to use spoken language or not, the video would lose a lot if it only relied on showing them speaking or typing the words.

And I really dislike a lot of the self-advocacy movement for relying mostly on the self-advocacy that happens through words, written or spoken. This leaves out people who can’t do either but who are nonetheless quite capable of advocating for themselves through their actions and movements. If I hadn’t spent a lot of my life forcing myself to do words, I might be such a person, so I am always aware of this. Words are not natural to me the way they are to some autistic people. They’re difficult and my development could have gone either way. There are also people who, no matter how much effort they put in, could never have used or understood words, and they are also extremely important, and they are also capable of self-advocacy, and they are still capable of communication that is more full of meaning than the communication of many people who use words.

I wish there were videos using their communication — which by definition wouldn’t involve words. Both people who would have been able to use words had they put in a crapload of effort at critical times in their development, and people who would never be able to use them no matter what. Such people exist. I sometimes wonder if they are too inconvenient for some autistic people to remember. I hate when people tell parents, “If you just gave your child a communication device they would be able to type words (or use picture symbols) and everything would be solved.” You don’t know that. You just can’t possibly know that. I hear that a lot, this idea that autistic people would all be able to communicate in words if only they were given a means to type them instead of speak them. And it’s so not true that its utterly ridiculous. I hear it both from people whose main way of communicating is speech, and also from people who use typing, and people who use both. It’s wishful thinking and it’s not true. There are people whose understanding of the world is just like a typical “aspie” except they couldn’t speak for motor reasons, and they are the most likely of those who use typing, to believe this myth.

Reality is that there are lots of people who will either never be able to use words, never be able to understand words, or both. Or whose use or understanding is so limited that they will never be able to use words as their primary means of communication. But they do communicate, whether the communication is intentional or not. And they do matter. And they are capable of self-advocacy. And they should be included in self-advocacy movements if those movements ever expect to represent autistic people, developmentally disabled people, cognitively disabled people, disabled people in general, whatever group is trying to represent itself in that movement. And in order to include them, you have to show their movements and their sounds and all the things they do that aren’t words.

It’s true that many people who are thought not to be able to use or understand language, actually are. And it’s terrible that they are overlooked. But in their desire not to overlook such people, many people claim that all disabled people who can’t communicate through speech fall under this umbrella. And that’s simply not true. In order to communicate with people who will never use words, you have to learn their language. (And surprise, that’s one thing that “In My Language” was actually about. And it would be about that whether I used typing or speech to communicate — either one would be my “second language”, and as such I can easily, easily envision a situation where I never learned and never would learn to use speech or typing, both of which I used at different points in my life.) And each person has one. Sometimes several people have a language that is in common but is not words. Sometimes each one has a separate way of communicating that is not words. But either way, you have to learn how they communicate, not force them to either communicate how you best communicate, or else be considered “non-communicative” for the rest of their life. And yes it’s possible to get consent to use their communication, it’s just sometimes harder work than asking a yes or no question in words.

And a community that doesn’t include such people isn’t my community. The developmental disability community is far better at including such people than the autistic community is, even though not all of the DD community manages it either. One reason I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with people who can’t use words in any form is because I’ve been in the developmental disability system for pretty much my entire adult life and have spent a lot of time with a wide variety of people. And I’ve spent a lot of time communicating with people who can’t and may never use speech or typing or even picture boards. And that’s something that certain segments of the autistic community are sorely missing. Even parts of the autistic community that involve people who don’t use speech, are often made up of only those people who were able to learn typing, and often put forth the (false) idea that everyone could learn typing if only they tried hard enough or were exposed to the proper teaching methods.

The response someone made is true: Some of the people in the video use typing, so they could never be shown speaking the words in the video. But I’d like to go further than people who use speech and people who use typing, because unlike a lot of people, my social world is made up of a lot of people who can’t do either one. And also made up of a lot of people who, even if they can use speech, typing, or both, those are not their best means of communication, and it would be better to show us using our best means of communication rather than merely the form of using words. Not everyone has words but everyone has a voice and a means of communicating. And not everyone who uses words sees words as their primary voice or their primary means of understanding things, and that needs to be respected. And I’m sick to death of spending time in communities where most people seem to miss these facts, and automatically see having a voice as the same as using speech or at least using language.

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What I mean by “beneath” words.

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I was trying to explain to someone what it meant when I said that I spend  so much time “beneath” words, and have to climb up to them from below. And it hit me that I could depict all of the different layers I go through one on top of the other. I once depicted them (but not all of them, and not showing them as layers) before, so I already knew some of how to do this. I used cut out pieces of construction paper to do the top six layers, and paint for the bottom two.

underwords

I’m numbering the eight layers from bottom to top, but describing them from top to bottom. So I am going to start with the eighth layer.  Also these are the layers for written language specifically. Some of them do correspond to spoken words.  

The eighth (top) layer shows the words, “Don’t you know another”. It could be any words, but after not having a clue which to use, I chose the start of a sentence that a guy in an emergency room told me when I was a teen, after I was picked up very overloaded in public and humming one tune over and over to calm down. (He was in that mode people get in when you’ve become unable to talk so they suddenly decide you’ve become unaware of your surroundings too, and they mutter at you in a specific tone that seems to assume you will never tell anyone what they said.) These words represent what happens when you understand the words perfectly well.  

The seventh layer reads “melly doxel rin tunsh”. It represents being able to recognize the sounds a word might make, but not being able to understand their meaning. Whether or not you know that words can have meanings (I didn’t know that when I learned to read, and had skipped over some layers entirely that only became meaningfully separate later).  

The sixth layer reads “ncj fv rztlh xlm hnnc”. This layer involves recognizing the letters as letters, but not deriving sounds from them. 

The fifth layer shows a series of symbols such as circles, squares, zig zag lines, and other shapes. They are arranged as if they form words with spaces between them. This represents recognizing the letters as symbols, but not as recognizable letters.

The fourth layer shows a series of small slightly wavy lines, arranged in a pattern. This involves recognizing the letters as separate things, but not recognizing them as symbols. 

The third layer shows a bunch of joined together lines. This represents seeing and noticing a black pattern on the background, but not really separating out the pieces. 

The second layer is painted. It shows a variety of shapes, some recognizable and some not, some vague and others clearer, all blending into each other and the background. The photo has different colors than the real object due to the flash, for instance something medium green came out almost light pink. There is some loss of the actual multilayered texturing that’s in the real one too.  This layer represents just sort of seeing a lot of shapes and colors and visual textures, and the patterns those things make, and not even noticing the text at all.  Although it’s by nature visual, this is usually happening in all the senses at that point. 

The first layer is gradually and unevenly shaded into by the second layer. It shows a textured black background with a white circle in it. This is when not even sensory impressions make much of a dent in conscious awareness. The white circle is meant to show that even though this may seem completely blank in some ways, it’s not as empty as it may seem. (When things seem totally empty I feel “disappeared”. I did not attempt to draw this, but it would be zero.)

The things I drew were usually somewhat arbitrary. It would be possible to include more or fewer layers, or things “off to the side” that don’t fit into a simple sequence. I drew this to communicate a basic idea, not to do a perfect representation of everything.  There are doubtless layers above eight too — but I drew this to show what is beneath what most people think is the most basic, not to show all the different levels that fluent reading can take.  

Anyway, in different people who experience all these layers, things may work differently. For instance someone might live in the sixth layer, climb to the seventh layer easily, climb to the eighth layer with more difficulty, fall back to the fourth layer during ordinary shutdown, and the second during more severe shutdown. Such a person will have a very different experience of each of these layers than I do (for instance viewing the second layer as total confusion instead of comforting, familiar, and easily navigated).  And a second person may live in the sixth layer also but never make it to the eighth and have great difficulty with the seventh. And someone else may live in the fourth, and climb to the seventh easily by skipping the fifth and sixth altogether. 

I generally live in the second and first layers. This is where I am comfortable and have the widest experience navigating. I have a lot of experience built up there and it isn’t disorienting.  There are things that can disorient me during shutdown but they aren’t part of the scope of something about reading and are hard to depict. And then there’s layer zero during shutdowns. 

Climbing up to layer three and four can be done with some effort. It’s not always possible but it’s easier than the things above it. 

Layer five has a barrier that takes much willpower and effort to push through. Layer five is when things become pretty painful. It’s like each time I look at a symbol and recognize it for one, it burns my brain and squeezes on other aspects of thought until they run off and hide. 

There is a similar thing that can happen to me when at a similar layer in perceiving my surroundings in general. For instance, I might pick out anything circular in my surroundings and each circle I see hurts my brain the same way.  And in listening to my environment, I will generally pick out a really annoying and short musical rhythm or tune from the sounds around me, and hear it boring its way into my ears over and over. 

Past that barrier, things might be hard but nowhere near as hard as going through that barrier is.  Sometimes I go to the sixth level and sometimes I skip it and go straight to the seventh. 

Between the seventh and eighth there is another barrier. Not as big as the barrier between fifth and anything below it, but still recognizably difficult. My guess is that’s because putting actual meaning into the words is very different from, say, matching a set of sounds to a set of visual squiggles, which is just pairing one sense with another without having to match it to concepts. 

(The concepts themselves are usually not one word at a time. It’s more like, what set of words goes the most often with what set of experiences, and then which patterns of word orders and such go with which others.  And then skip the words you don’t understand (more than you might expect) and take what’s left and hope it makes sense.)

Anyway, obviously most of these layers involve climbing, and some parts of the climb are steeper or more difficult than others. But often I will find that it’s impossible to climb any higher than a certain point no matter how hard I try. Other times it’s impossible to climb because I entirely forget that the higher layers exist. Frequent cutoff points for both of those are between two and three (the point where the text is noticed), four and five (the point where symbols are recognized), and seven and eight (the point where meaning of words is introduced).  

Additionally, most of the time I let go I fall down to at least the second layer if not the first. Sometimes I fall down to the third or fourth instead. But there are two really terrible things that can happen instead. I can get “stuck” in one of the really painful areas. 

Getting stuck in the fifth layer happens sometimes. It’s as if the symbol-recognizing thing in my brain has so much momentum that it takes time for it to stop and drop down to something easier to take. Everywhere I look there are symbols. And every symbol noticed is pain. There is no way to stop this except to ride it out. 

But even worse is getting stuck at the eighth layer. This happens if I read or write too much without falling back to the lower layers to rest. I described this layer as the one where meaning is added. But I meant this only in the sense of matching a set of words to a meaning. I didn’t mean meaning as in meaningful. Quite the opposite.  

When stuck at the eighth layer, there is no escaping the words whether I look at words or not. The words have gotten inside my head.  The meaningfulness that I derive from the second layer is nowhere to be found. Direct experience is nowhere to be found. The only thing to be found is words, words, and words. 

Things go orange or yellow (the two most painful colors) and flickery, accompanied by an equally flickery ringing in my ears, and a dry burning all over my body.  And inside my head all I see or hear are words. Flickery words. Buzzing words. Words. Words. Words. Words. Words. Repeating like that in an endless loop.  And the terrifying emptiness that to me seems like the essence of what words and all other abstractions are (yes I am a writer with a loathing for words).  

The longer I try to do something like read to take my mind off the flickering, the worse it gets and the longer it takes to go away. Time seems infinite at times like this. The only thing to do is suck it up, lie down in a dark quiet room, and tough it out until it either disintegrates or I fall asleep.  If I’m awake, I gradually experience more and more periods of dark quiet, until finally the humming flickering wordiness dissipates. Usually at that point I’m exhausted and possibly have been frozen in one position for hours. 

I can think of very few experiences I like less than becoming stuck in the eighth layer.  I would far rather deal with shutdowns where nothing I can’t feel/see/etc. exists and I keep hitting layer zero and vanishing from my own awareness. 

Another important thing is that people operating at the same layer are not necessarily experiencing the same thing. My ability to read means I can operate at the eighth layer despite living at the first and second most of the time. Another person might live at the eighth. Another person might live up at some sort of eleventh layer I haven’t got into, and be experiencing the eighth due to shutdown. The person who lives there will be the only comfortable one. I will be uncomfortable because I am greatly stretching my abilities and hanging by my fingernails. The person from the eleventh layer will likely be distressed and disoriented because their usual abilities are gone and they don’t have the long experience functioning in that layer that someone who lives there does. 

This is one reason I find it really offensive when people assume that every person who can read and write (at least some of the time) has identical experiences. That assumes that everyone who can sometimes get to the eighth layer lives there, doesn’t understand the other layers that come before it, and can always get there. It’s not that simple. It’s not even as simple as the picture makes it look (and this picture is only about reading!). Life is quite a lot more complicated than that. 

So that’s my simplified guide to what I mean when I talk about living “under” or “beneath” words. Similar but not identical things apply when I talk about what’s “beneath” certain kinds of thought, perception, movement, etc. Oh and generally writing something this long puts my reading at layer seven at best, which is one of several reasons I can’t easily proofread, summarize, remember what I wrote, or do various other things.

How (not) to ask me questions.

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This post is in the spirit of Eyeballs eyeballs eyeballs. Picture the person in strong/bold letters as talking very rapidly and very loudly with only the shortest pauses in between.

DUUYUUWAHNNIKAEH’? . Let’s see… “cat”, “do you,” what is she… how do I connect these to meanings… YORSAENWIHCHDUUYUUWAHNNIKAEH’ (head goes blank again, blank look must be on face) KAEH’ KAEH’ (WAVE OBJECT IN FACE AND START SLASHING HAND ACROSS IT) (okay what was she saying again, something about cats, why cats?) DUUYUUWAHNNIKAEH SUHMPEEPUHLLAYIK DHAIRSAENWIHCHKAE’ DIHNDHUHMIDUHL
“do you want”… “some people like”… argh why won’t she give me a minute to think? SUHMPEEPULLAYIK
DHAIRSAENWIHCHIHSKAEH’
why does she drive out any words and meanings I’m figuring out by piling more words into this? (IMPATIENTLY WAVE OBJECT IN FACE AND SLASH HAND ACROSS IT) KAEH’KAEH’LAYIKDHIHS …argh. Just say yes and she’ll stop.

Translation:

She’s holding a sandwich on a plate. She says, “Do you want it cut?” I sit there looking confused, finally having figured out that these are words and that one of them sounds like “cat”. Within half a beat of me figuring that out she says, “Your sandwich, do you want it cut?” This drives all the interpretation out of my brain and I have to start over. While she’s saying it I’m just barely getting meaning out of the first sentence. And as I slowly progress in understanding them, she keeps interrupting it. “Cut! Cut!” She mimes cutting through a sand with her hands. “Do you want it cut? Some people like their sandwiches cut in the middle.” I’m still trying to figure out what’s going on, having so far only managed to retain the idea that I’m being asked a question. She mimes cutting again. “Cut. Cut. Like this.” Etc. I figure out she’s asking something, that it’s in a yes/no question pattern, and that if I say yes she’ll probably stop throwing words in my face.

The problem is that a question has urgency about it. It has “you have to answer this” somewhere in it. It turns on this whole program in my head devoted to giving random answers to questions to get them to stop. And then a lot of people will barely wait a single moment after asking a question, to go on and ask more of them. They don’t realize that as they’re doing this they’re just throwing on more and more language to process. And that each time they ask a question, the message I get in my head is “Urgent, urgent, needs response, now need to figure out how to respond,” and I have to then backtrack and figure out what the question is if I don’t want to just give a random answer (I have a bunch of templates stored in my head for question types that have easy enough answers to randomly pull out to get people to stop asking them). And then halfway through my figuring it out it gets interrupted by another message of “Urgent! Urgent! Answer them!”

So the end result is a huge pile of urgency in my head and no comprehension until the person has finally shut up and gone away.

And text is only slightly better than this. If you expect me to rapidly process a question, you’re expecting that it’s a really good day for language processing. If you keep asking them over and over, you’ll just add to the stuff to process, not make it easier to answer. And there are a lot of people whose style of question-asking seems to be along the lines of stacking questions on top of each other. Sometimes it’s assorted variants on the same question. Sometimes it’s slightly or even majorly different questions asked two at a time and leaving me wondering which one to answer — “Do you want to do something do you want to go to the park?” is one of my least favorite question styles. It’s like a run-on question.

I noticed some time a year or two ago, that I do a lot of my communication with staff people without relying on the language content, and that one of the problems with new people is the amount of language I have to produce and understand in orienting them to the job. Someone who’s been here awhile will hand me something, and say what to do with it, and I won’t even hear them saying what to do, I just know from routine that it’s always what I do with it and the words don’t matter. Even if the words are something I have to answer, I find myself often able to give yes/no answers without having a clue what the person is saying. I noticed that a huge amount of the time people are working for me, they have no idea that I am not hearing the majority of the words they’re saying. I just know all the motions to go through and all the responses to give and I do it largely based on where they are positioned, where I am positioned, how each of us is moving, and what objects are being handed around.

And when people — strangers or just people unfamiliar with me — do notice that I’m not noticing what they’re saying, they seem to have a tendency to say something in a snippy tone along the lines of “Do you have a hearing problem or something?”

Note that I can often figure out what people are saying, sometimes even quite quickly. But it takes a certain level of effort, focus, concentration, energy, and ability to do that on that particular day. It helps if the topic is very familiar. And none of it ever feels natural or easy.

The problem is that explaining my incomprehension to others is so familiar that I can do that, and most of the responses, by rote, leaving them with the impression that their questions and responses are somehow all being understood when they’re really not.

I also do understand a whole lot of things with a delay. I now understand the entire conversation this person had with me half an hour ago. And there are still vivid memories as far back as 25 years ago that I am still trying to figure out the words to. I go over and over the sounds in my head and try to put them together into something meaningful. Often one day I’ll just spontaneously realize what someone said to me when I was 3 years old.

There are also times when there’s no comprehension possible, including no awareness that the words are even something that ought to concern me any more than white noise would. All of these different things are largely the same as the auditory version of the way I explained reading to be in my post titled Safety Hazards.

But at any rate — the best thing to do with a question is make sure I’m paying attention (and this doesn’t have to mean “looking at you”, it means focused on understanding what you’re saying), then ask one question (not a double-decker question either) and wait for an answer. You might get a quick one or a slow one, but the more you throw words on top of words, and the more pressure you put on, the more you slow me down. And the more likely you make it that I’ll give an inaccurate scripted answer if I answer at all — which isn’t fair to either of us, so I try hard to suppress that. If the interaction is over something where you can hand me an object that’s capable of prompting me in the right direction, all the better.