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The Private Language of Autism

Elizabeth H. was not trying to be funny when she sent this email to ASI’s Executive Director, Veronica Federiconi, while she was traveling abroad:

“I want you to see my concert when you get back from
I had to blank the location because I may not know that terrorists are reading this. This was also done in World
War 2. They censor the letters and… oops! The bus was just called, I’ll write back tomorrow morning.”

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People like Liz do not know how to be pretentious with language. They say exactly what they mean. There is no posturing.

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Liz was very serious about keeping the whereabouts of her friend away from suspecting “terrorists.” Liz has Asperger Syndrome (AS), which is a milder form of autism. Like the rest of us, she keeps up on current events, maybe even more so. But unlike the rest of us, language for Liz is a different experience. You see, we have the ability to discriminate between conjecture and confirmed information. It is not yet certain if Liz can. Stereotypes and generalizations, which are the unfortunate by-products of language usage, will very likely be taken as a point of fact by Liz. And yet, we have to wonder if her “disorder” in some way makes a statement about our own communication disorders. Veronica Federiconi, Executive Director of Autism Services, sees Liz, and people like her, as unwittingly casting a light on some of the dubious habits of typical communication. “Think about how we usually employ language. We reprimand or stigmatize cultures that do not speak exactly like we do. We use it as a barometer of etiquette, status and class, ultimately drawing mental lines between different people. With autism, language is not a subjective thing. It is stripped down to being little more than a utility. People like Liz do not know how to be pretentious with language. They say exactly what they mean. There is no posturing,” says Veronica.

Autism is not always apparent by physical distinctions like so many other disabilities.

This is one of the reasons why communicating with someone with autism can be challenging. Typical persons are used to reading between the lines of what someone else is saying – or not saying. We assume that behind what is spoken is an unspoken agenda. We have been communicating this way for so long that we take for granted that the person addressing us is not being straight forward. Chances are, for that other person, the feeling is mutual – unless they have autism. But that is where it gets complicated. We may try to straighten our communication curves if we know the other person has autism, but there is a good chance that you will not know. Autism is not always apparent by physical distinctions like many other disabilities. People with AS very often do not discover that they are on the Autism Spectrum until later on in life, resulting in many years of confusion when trying to communicate with typical persons. They often do not hear the cues that they are supposed to hear. They cannot tell when someone is being sarcastic or facetious. Those nuances often need to be explained by someone else. Acclimation at places of employment can be extremely difficult for those with AS.

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Autistic Services Inc.Autistic Services Inc.

Failure to detect nuances in language can be more severe for some people. “The goal, of course, is to help many of them better adjust to the norms of society, especially for our participants for whom this disorder is more severe. So we do have processes and programs for helping with this. But sometimes I have to wonder if it is right to impose these standards. It is practical, sure. But philosophically, these are not necessarily good traits about typical communication. They are simply accepted because almost everybody does it. But maybe we should be learning from them,” Veronica added.

Actually, there are some on the Spectrum who would agree. As the number of autism incidents increases, advocacy groups continue to grow.  A recurring sentiment among many is that, if presented with a cure, they would decline. Autism Services hosts a monthly meeting for people with AS, who agree that being “neurotypical” is less important than society’s acceptance of different people. More than a handful of the people in this monthly AS Group have unusually high IQ’s, so intelligence clearly is not a factor in this language barrier. It is possible that since autism is genetic, we are seeing an evolution in human beings that will warrant an evolution in how we communicate. Maybe, in the end, language will be all the better for it.

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