Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part III

(Part III in a series of posts that will eventually take us to a highly contagious and dangerously inaccurate meme about what autism is.)

Let’s begin here by augmenting the scenario discussed in part II: Imagine yourself going to another country where you don’t know the language and spending several years there seemingly immersed in that language, and that:

  1. all your basic needs are taken care, such that you don’t actually need to interact with anyone, and
  2. for whatever reason, you mostly choose not to interact with anyone, even passively, such that:
  3. even as you hear the syllables coming out of people’s mouths, you manage to hardly ever pay attention to what those who utter these syllables are doing, looking at, or otherwise attending to.

In this situation, I argued, you would learn very little of the spoken language.

Now let’s consider the written version of the new language. Imagine that the language uses a completely different alphabet—say the Georgian alphabet, which, in this sample text, looks like this:


Imagine that you are as immersed in the written language as you are in the spoken language, and just as unfamiliar with it.

But suppose that, while you pay little attention to what people are doing when they speak, you pay lots of attention to print. You find these strings of squiggly shapes fascinating to look at, and so you’re constantly looking at signs and labels, paging through books and magazines, and scanning the captions to TV shows and movies.


How much of the written language would you learn under these circumstances? Given that you haven’t picked up much at all of the spoken version, to what extent would you eventually be able to read and write the language?

In the case of a phonemic writing system like Georgian, the route to mastery is phonics. But without having learned the spoken language, you would have limited information about the sounds of these written words. TV captions might theoretically get you somewhere, but in general the captioned speech, and the captions themselves, go by too quickly, and aren’t sufficiently synchronized, for you to form clear associations. It’s therefore unlikely that you would glean enough information to learn, on your own, the general rules for sounding words out phonemically.

For shorter words that appear regularly as labels for concrete objects, you might manage some limited “whole word” learning, associating a particular string of squiggles with a particular referent. For example, you might eventually learn to recognize ქუჩა as the word for “street.”

But, no matter how much time you spend scanning the written language on your own, you will never get to the point of fully comprehending even the simplest texts in picture books like this one:


…let alone being able to write or type out simple, grammatical sentences on your own.

What does this mean for autism? Stay tuned.

2 thoughts on “Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part III

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