Friday, February 29, 2008

The language of thought

Yesterday The New York Times ran a story The Language of Autism focusing on a YouTube video In My Language by Amanda Baggs.

According to the story Baggs can type 120 word per minute and that is the only way she can communicate -- with humans.

[full transcript following post]

I can take nothing away from her claims that she is thinking and interacting and that she is capable of using language to communicate. Nor would I care to dismiss the importance of her claim that she is considered less human and she is disregarded too easily just because she doesn't communicate conventionally.

It's a sad characteristic of many societies that we are too willing to abandon pursuit of an active and knowable humanity when we encounter a barrier. Sometimes it's easier to think there's nothing on the other side.

Some of her claims can be investigated further. She calls her interaction with her surroundings 'language' and she questions a seeming double standard by which it is called a "deficit" when an autistic individual doesn't learn 'our' "language" but 'we' are not called disabled when we don't learn her "language."

The definition of language is important here. She herself notes that hers is not a semiotic system. But language is a semiotic system. Language is also learnable. But it's impossible for us to learn her 'language.' Not just because there isn't a means to learning it but because it isn't a system that can be learned.

She explains that her expression "is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret." That makes it impossible to learn. We can at best learn about it. She can learn our language because it is a language. We can't learn her language because it's not a language. I make these distinctions only to redirect the double standard as I see it. It's not because of ignorance of a language that her behaviors are dismissed as meaningless; they're devalued because they're significance isn't known. And through language, actual language, she can make that significance known. But significance doesn't make it a language. Even if her interactions are a stream of communication with everything around her -- communicating doesn't make it a language.

I don't want to simply blow a whistle on technicalities. That would overlook her real claim as I see it: we should be aware that she recognizes and actively considers the value of many behaviours that we may have thought were mindless.

So let's put aside the argument of what makes a language. She's not the only one that uses language for those expressions and interactions that aren't technically language and that don't lend themselves to linguistic analysis. We hear such phrases a lot: the language of love; the language of dance; the language of colour; the language of fashion; the language of flowers; the language of cooking. These rarely refer to the jargon or dialect associated with these topics. These lines typically refer to the import of any gestures that use these media. What are you saying when you wear pink? What does it mean when you kiss your wife? What are you saying when you cook farfalle with lamb and garlic cream sauce?

When I hug my wife I want it to be meaningful. And I want her to understand that. I want to communicate a lot to her with that embrace. But it's not language. It's a meaningful gesture. We like to use the word language even when we don't mean Language.

So I don't fault Amanda for that use. I say her claim is strongest when she focuses on the purposefulness of her actions. She has a point when she says that the description of her as being in a world of her own falsely represents her interaction with her surroundings. She sees value in interacting with many things that we regularly overlook. So she's not shut in. She's tuned in. That's a nice distinction.

I must assume that when she suggests we could learn her language she means that we could learn to value just as she does the effect she has on her environment and the effect it has on her. Perhaps we could even learn to be more aware of our own surroundings. And we can respect those who value that which we don't understand.

[I include here a complete transcript of the video script (taken from the subtitles).]

The previous part of this video was in my native language. Many people have assumed that when I talk about this being my language that means that each part of the video must have a particular symbolic message within it designed for the human mind to interpret. But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting physically to all parts of my surroundings.

[as video focuses on her fingers in a stream of water] In this part of the video the water doesn't symbolize anything. I am just interacting with the water as the water interacts with me. Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me.

Ironically the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as 'being in a world of my own' whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limit part of my surroundings people claim that I am 'opening up to true interaction with the world'. They judge my existence, awareness, and personhood on which of a tiny and limited part of the world I appear to be reacting to.

The way I naturally think and respond to things looks and feels so different from standard concepts or even visualization that some people do not consider it thought at all but it is a way of thinking in its own right. However the thinking of people like me is only taken seriously if we learn your language no matter how we previously thought or interacted.

As you heard I can sing along with what is around me. It is only when I type something in your language that you refer to me as having communication.

I smell things.

I listen to things.

I feel things.

I taste things.

I look at things.

It is not enough to look and and listen and taste and smell and feel, I have to do those to the right things such as look at books and fail to do them to the wrong things or else people doubt that I am a thinking being and since their definition of thought defines their definition of personhood so ridiculously much they doubt that I am a real person as well. I would like to honestly know how many people if you met me on the street would believe I wrote this.

I find it very interesting by the way that failure to learn your language is seen as a deficit but failure to learn my language is seen as so natural that people like me are officially described as mysterious and puzzling rather than anyone admitting that it is themselves who are confused not autistic people or other cognitively disabled people who are inherently confusing. We are even viewed as non-communicative if we don't speak the standard language but other people are not considered non-communicative if they are so oblivious to our own languages as to believe they don't exist.

In the end I want you to know that this has not been intended as a voyeuristic freak show where you get to look at the bizarre workings of the autistic mind. It is meant as a strong statement on the existence and value of many different kinds of thinking and interaction in a world where how close you can appear to a specific one of them determines whether you are seen as a real person or an adult or an intelligent person. And in a world in which those determine whether you have any rights there are people being tortured, people dying because they are considered non-persons because their kind of thought is so unusual as to not be considered thought at all. Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible


  1. Good post. After recovering from my initial surprise that a person with autism could master "our language," I watched the video again and evaluated her claims much the same way you have here... in fact, I'm a little reminded of my own less-than-persuasive "come-on-people" rhetoric. When I see a beautiful sunset, I sometimes want to say to the world: "LOOK!--isn't that beautiful? I mean, really look!" And whenever I try that, I get reactions anywhere from "Yeah whatever" to "My, that is beautiful." But if I believe others are less sensitive to nature or their environment than I am, I'm not sure I can really take an attitude of moral superiority, and I almost detect that in Amanda's essay-video.

    But still, it was fascinating to learn more about the "disorder," or as Amanda calls it, "the way of being."

  2. I think my reaction at the time was "Wow, what a surprisingly coherent argument," not because someone with autism was making it, but because I don't expect YouTube videos to make any sense.


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