Writing and Autism: Abstractions

Note: This post is part of a continuing, irregular series on writing and autism. (See: Autism and Writing)

Autistic writers struggle with "abstraction," according to the limited research available. I would love to conduct more research on this topic, since I also dislike abstractions in writing — yet I am a creative writer. The signs of this challenge with abstraction include:
  • Using figurative language poorly or incorrectly, an issue associated with "undeveloped" metaphorical thinking (and second language learners)
What does this reveal about autism? More importantly for students with autism spectrum disorders, how can you pass required writing courses if you don't even understand what writing processors consider "mature" writing? Based on my experiences, most writing teachers cannot appreciate how autistics experience written language.

What's an Abstraction?

An abstraction is any thought that cannot be readily converted to a concrete metric or representation. Concepts like love and friendship are abstractions. The idea that "knowledge is socially constructed" is the biggest abstraction that I've encountered as an academic — and something I still reject as an absurd statement. How we express knowledge is a human process, but the factual basis of knowledge? That's concrete to me. This might be a "humanities" vs. "sciences" perspective. Science "discovers" knowledge, meaning it reveals and studies, but does not create facts. English professors talk of "creating" knowledge. That's an entirely different perspective, and one I don't like. It makes me physically uncomfortable.

Here's the difference, using language as an example:

(Yes, I am simplifying a complex debate for this example.)

I believe grammar is descriptive. Humans with no concept of nouns, verbs, or adjectives communicate using words or symbols that might be classified using a grammar. We happen to use the word "noun" to as a category marker: these words refer to things and concepts. Humans did not create nouns, we merely discovered the pattern and assigned words to various categories.

Many English professors believe grammar is prescriptive. That means the rules are created and then followed. I've discovered that although English professors might claim to be descriptive, they certainly grade and evaluate on a prescriptive model of language. I've had professors argue that grammar is "socially constructed" and that the dominant social powers set the rules.

Sorry, but grammar seems to be something many animals have. Vocalizations, gestures, and even scents have patterns and meanings among various organisms. Grammar seems to be something "wired" into the brain. We speak and write long before we can diagram sentences. (Most of us with English degrees can't diagram sentences without some effort.)

So, I believe facts exist to be discovered. How we interpret those fact or try to understand them is cultural, but the facts are the facts. Technology is science applied, so it can create new "things" for our lives. But, technology is constrained. Life is constrained by the facts around us. You don't get to create your own facts. That's why I tend to understand people from science, technology, engineering, and math.

Curiously, some of the best artists I know are employed in STEM fields. They have little difficulty appreciating music, painting, sculpture, or other art forms. Most love reading. Yet, they also hated literature and writing courses. Since many (but not all) autistics favor STEM disciplines, could this explain why the traits of autism and requirements of English composition courses conflict?

As readers know, I have two English degrees (bachelor's and master's) and a doctorate in rhetoric — but I struggle with the language and culture of English departments. These struggles represent how different English departments are, even if English professors don't always appreciate how different they are from some disciplines (and students). Abstraction and relativism are part of English department cultures. So are buzzwords and political correctness in ways that don't make sense to some autistics. (This doesn't mean the autistics might not align politically with their professors — there are language barriers.)

People ask me if I "love" my wife. I answer yes, and I assume that is the right answer. I like being with her and we have a lot in common. I believe she's special. But what is "love" and how can it be explained? I have no idea. I certainly don't get the type of "love" in most books. "I'd rather die than be without you!" strikes me as astoundingly stupid.

From my dissertation:
Recall that students with ASDs approach language as a series of patterns to be mastered (Tantam, 1991). Students with ASDs view the language they read as detached from the emotions of the writer (Attwood, 1998; Happé, 1991). Individuals with ASDs who are interested in language are likely to be grammatical and style perfectionists, able to identify even the most obscure errors. They are also likely to be tediously slow readers, having to translate any colloquial language into concrete ideas (Attwood, 1998; Grandin, 2006; Harpur et al., 2004).
The students (and former students) with ASDs I have interviewed tell strikingly similar stories about their writing course experiences. Generally, the experiences were horrible. For more than a few autistic students, college composition or other required English courses (writing or literature) were their last college courses — barriers they could not pass. Imagine being a math or science star, with a genius-level IQ overall, and failing out of college because you struggle with the language used in English courses. You might even be gifted with languages, and yet fail to master the English class.

Let's compare the research to my experiences as a student, which parallels that of the autistics I've interviewed. I'll use the points found in my dissertation research:

1) Language as a series of patterns.
2) Language detached from the author.
3) Grammar and mechanics perfectionism.
4) Reading as a translation process.

Abstraction is a barrier to success because of the four items listed, and probably for many additional reasons.

1) Language as a series of patterns. This is why many autistics, including me, love to learn new languages. It is also why I happen to like computer programming languages, musical composition, and other pattern-based forms of communication. Abstractions often break the patterns, jarring my efforts to follow sentences or paragraphs.

2) Language detached from the author. Abstractions seem to make more sense if you can connect the words to a person. When I read, though, I have to focus on the words. Some autistics do respond emotionally to written works, but I don't and many others do not. I cannot explain it, since I am a creative writer, but words on a page do not "move me" emotionally. Words on a page are just dots of ink or pixels representing letters. That's an appalling proposition for English teachers.

The questions I hated most as a student dealt with abstractions of emotion. "How does Sally feel when she writes that she loves the wilted flowers on her table? What do the flowers represent?" I have to assume she likes the flowers and that's what she feels — because that's what the author wrote. I have no idea what the flowers represent. For a question such as that, I'll need to spend hours tracing the flowers backwards. Other people seem to do this instinctively. "Sally was given the flowers by Walter. They must remind her of him, which is how wilting flowers can trigger a good memory." Really? Seriously? They are flowers. They aren't Walter.

Now, I have things in life that matter to me for "sentimental reasons." Only one is related to a person, though. My wedding ring. Not much abstraction there. It's called a wedding ring. It reminds me of my wife. If I have wilted flowers in the house, they are going into the trash.

3) Grammar and mechanics perfectionism. Underneath patterns are rules, stated or not. As I mentioned above, I follow words by anticipating patterns. You break the pattern, you've shattered my reading experience. For English professors, that's literature at its best. For me, it is simply annoying. Follow the rules, please. If you don't want to follow the rules, fine, but don't expect me to read what you write. Don't even try to demand it of me — I'll quit because violating the rules upsets me that much.

A fair amount of abstract writing is "literary" — which isn't going to appeal to me, anyway.

4) Reading as a translation process. I read at a painfully slow pace. Yes, painful is a literal word for me. Reading some fiction or literary works causes horrible headaches. I don't want to be impressed with how obtuse a message can be. When I read, I keep a list of words and phrases to look up later. If my computer happens to be on, I'll use its dictionary and various websites to translate the words.

If I don't have a way to translate the figurative language in a text or some abstract concepts, then I'm skipping and jumping about the paragraphs. It's a lousy way to read.

What about Autistic Writers?

There is limited research on autistic writers. Again, I hope to continue some research in that area, if I find employment at a university again. However, we do know from analyses of "autistic poetry" that the writers tend to use figurative language as other students might use large words from a thesaurus. The figurative is "unnatural" for the autistic, substituted somewhat rigidly for ideas.

If I know that "roses" mean "love" then I can "mimic" the use of figurative language. It isn't a metaphor that simply "comes to me" without conscious thought, though. I have to make an effort to recognize a teacher wants a metaphor. Then, I have to search for a good metaphor. I've memorized a great deal of figurative language. That's how I used to write mediocre poetry: insert metaphor here, add simile, end with hyperbole. For poetry, I stuck to patterns I observed among other writers.

I encourage teachers to read:

Osteen, Mark. Autism and Representation. New York: Routledge, 2007.

In particular, read the following:

  • Chapter 4: "Autism and Modernism A Genealogical Exploration," by Patrick McDonagh
  • Chapter 5: "Autism and the Imagination," by Bruce Mills
  • Chapter 6: "Imagination and the Awareness of Self in Autistic Spectrum Poets," by Ilona Roth

Instead of calling autistic students "immature thinkers" or insulting their approach to knowledge as somehow inferior, I hope more writing teachers can come to appreciate that autistics do think differently, especially about words on the page or screen.


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