Two recent articles in Le Devoir got me (and others) thinking about autism. The first one was an interview with Michelle Dawson, the second a presentation of recent research results. It was as if these articles were answering CPU’s call to work on your strengths, not your weaknesses. Actually, the gist of it was that people with autism are differently intelligent (in the good sense of the expression), not less. That we shouldn’t try to convert them into “typicals”.
One of the biggest challenges of autism has to do with interaction, with the interface with others, as it were. And a good deal of that is reflected in the relation to language.
I don’t know that much about autism, but I know a few things about language. French linguist Gustave Guillaume saw, at the root of linguistic processes, two movements: generalization and particularization; which are also found in other cognitive processes, and are the basis of categorization. Well, from what I read in Le Devoir, autism would, in a way, do without these. They do not – or at least much less than us – categorize. Which leaves them with greater memory for details, and extended conscious perception. Because they do not discriminate as we do. Indeed, our typical intelligence is based on categorization and discrimination – maybe because it develops in parallel with linguistic processes. Even our memory is partly indebted to language; memories can easily become self-tales.
Which bring me to the question: Do autistics fail to categorize because language does not have the same cognitive importance for them, or does language not have the same cognitive importance because they fail to categorize? (Or do those two things proceed from the same cause?) I can’t say. But other interaction deficits (absence of eye contact, facial expressions) seem to indicate that autistics lack the social basis necessary to easy acquisition of language.
Their intelligence seems more akin to intuition. (speaking of, Nature proposes an interesting article on the subject of intuition.) As we grow up, we learn many things, but we forget, unlearn many too. (« The child has not learned the unique adult talent of interfering with nature » would say Ken Cohen.) For instance, at a very young age, we ca perceive and produce a great number of different sounds (phonemes) which we subsequently lose if they are not part of our language(s). Another thing we forget is how to trust our intuition. This faculty which gives us the answer before it is superseded, a few milliseconds later by our discriminating intelligence. This gut feeling that knows that the car on the left is about the change lanes. Or that the light is gonna change in 3, 2, 1…
This instinct is based on a subconscious analysis of a wealth of factors perceived without us realizing it. I autism, it would seem, these factors are consciously perceived. This can be a very powerful cognitive tool, but it can lack the necessary output. And the lowering of the perceptual filters may mean an information overload.