There are a lot of academic papers that can go in depth on language and communication that explain the power of language, the effects it can have on how a person views the world, and the dynamic between the intended meaning and the perceived meaning of words. I intend on giving a brief explanation of how language can effect autistic people without going into an in-depth academic discussion.
It seems that there is a commonly held idea that words have specific and universally held meaning/s. The idea is that if one uses words, that they will instantly be understood by the person hearing or reading them. Yet, this isn’t the case in practice. In practice people have different understanding of what words mean. Those differences can be large or they can be very nuanced. I don’t want to get into people who understand words to have a meaning that is not even remotely aligned with a dictionary definition, but instead I want to focus more on the nuanced difference in understanding. To help with that I will provide a poem from the Dao de jing. This is the religious texts of the Taoists, and the shortest religious book of the major religions. The Taoists are very skeptical and suspicious of language. They understand it’s short comings, and while language has utility, it’s short comings can cause problems in communicating. In the Taoist belief, the best communication is physical experience. Here is the Poem of “Duke Hwan and the Wheelwright”:
Duke Hwan of Khi, first in his dynasty,
sat under his canopy reading his philosophy.
And Phien the wheelwright was out in the yard
making a wheel.
Phien laid aside hammer and chisel,
climbed the steps
and said to duke Hwan,
“May I ask you, Lord,
what is this you are reading?”
Said the duke: “The experts, the authorities.”
Phien asked: “Alive or dead?”
The duke said: “Dead, a long time.”
“Then,” said the wheelwright,
“you are only reading the dirt they left behind.”
The duke replied, “What do you know about it?
You are only a wheelwright.
You had better give me a good explanation
or else you must die.”
The wheelwright said,
“Let us look at the affair from my point of view.
When I make wheels, if i go easy they fall apart,
and if I am too rough they don’t fit.
But if I am neither too easy nor too violent
they come out right,
and the work is what I want it to be.
“You cannot put this in words,
you just have to know how it is.
I cannot even tell my own son exactly how it is done,
and my own son cannot learn it from me.
Se here I am, seventy years old, still making wheels!
The men of old took all they really knew
with them to the grave.
And so, Lord, what you are reading there
is only the dirt they left behind them.”
The wheelwright is talking about the concepts of “easy”, “too easy”, and “too rough.” He doesn’t explicitly say “medium” but it’s implied. But why can’t he teach his son? Because what one considers “too easy”, “easy”, and “too rough” depends on the person. Even the wheelwright’s explanation of those concepts is one of comparison based on his personal experience. No words can adequately convey his physical understanding of these concepts so that another may instantly understand them and apply them. His “too easy” might be his son’s “medium” if his son is physically weaker than him.
This poem highlights one of the problems that autistic people can have with language. Given that autistic people often deal with sensory sensitivity, this can drastically impact our physical understanding of words in such a way that the understanding is outside the mean understanding of a word. It’s similar to trying to use words to explain colors to a color blind person. If a word is used to describe a color they can’t see, then the word doesn’t have the same physical meaning.
There is also the fact that people add social and emotional baggage to words. There is an intuitive understanding of a word’s meaning that is influenced by a person’s own life experience. These differences can range from large to small, but they are enough to change a way a person interprets a word and can also trigger biases that influence how they receive a message. This can lead to how they judge a person. I think most people have been through an experience of having their words misinterpreted and then being attacked for it. In my experience, text messaging is prime breeding ground for the misinterpretation of words. It’s often a prime example of a person adding bias to their reading and taking the message to mean something other than intended.
For these reasons, and others, there is a tendency for autistic people to use words literally. That, in and of itself, is a difficult proposition since definitions are open to interpretation as well. But, literal interpretations do get us closer to a shared understanding provided everyone uses the same codified system, but the reality is, that we don’t. This causes issues for autistic people who are often left baffled and frustrated over their words being misinterpreted or that they don’t seem to understand something they are being told. Autistic people may hear vagueness in a message where the speaker may see a very clear message.
It’s in the clumsiness of language that autistic people get lost. We are working through a myriad of possibilities for what a message can mean. We also have to try and discern the meaning of words based on the individual using the word, since it may not mean the same thing when another person uses it. It’s a deep and complex issue that can cause a great deal of distress for someone with autism. Communication can be an exhausting endeavor and as a result, some people with autism will adopt different degrees of mutism. Sometimes speaking isn’t worth the effort and the distress that it can cause.
Language is a social idea. This means that it comes with a great deal of difficulty for autistic people who are generally considered “socially disabled.” The social implications of language an autistic person uses can often be lost on them. Where we may intend a literal interpretation, the listener may very well be attaching a lot of unintended meaning. I often find that I have to consider the potential social implications of my words and that can cause me to have to do a great deal of thinking beforehand. There is a great deal of analysis that goes into crafting a message so that it can not only be understood as intended, but that it also doesn’t trigger a bias in the person that can cause the conversation to devolve in an unintended direction. As one might imagine, this is a source of anxiety.
Language is tricky and is essentially a mine field for autistic people. I hope that anyone reading future posts will consider this when interpreting what I write.
There is more to cover on this topic and I may cover it in further posts.