Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part VII

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

In my previous posts, I’ve made the following points:

–How much language you acquire, including how much language you comprehend, is correlated with how much attention you’ve paid, over the years, to other people’s speech and to what they are looking at and doing when speaking.

–Deficits in these attention behaviors, which are examples of what’s called Joint Attention, are among the core symptoms of autism. (If you don’t have deficits here, the diagnosis doesn’t apply).

–Therefore, the ability to acquire language and understand what other people saying is correlated with the severity of autism.

What all this means is that, if you understand most of the spoken or written language that surrounds you–from concrete labels to sophisticated psychological vocabulary; from simple, direct statements to jokes, innuendos, and other forms of figurative language–then, assuming you’re on the autism spectrum at all, you’re way far out on the mild end of it.

Now, as I discussed earlier, you might have a person who looks severely autistic even if they can do all these things. But the reason they look severely autistic isn’t because their autism is severe, but because they face additional challenges that limit their ability to actually produce language–to produce their own phrases, sentences, psychological vocabulary, jokes, innuendos, and figurative turns of phrase.

The most common culprit, as I noted, is apraxia of speech. Speech apraxia can severely limit one’s ability to produce spoken words. But it doesn’t affect writing and typing. I’ve witnessed a number of individuals on the autism spectrum who barely speak–if they speak at all–but can still produce phrases and sentences through independent typing.

(Most of these kids are still severely autistic–their joint attention behaviors are limited, and when they type they produce only a limited range of phrases, sentences, and vocabulary–but their comprehension skills are still significantly ahead of their oral skills).

However, as I noted earlier, it’s theoretically possible for there to be additional motor-control or body-awareness difficulties that prevent a person from producing written language, even if she has long been regularly attending to speakers and understands a great deal of the language that surrounds her.

Such people–profoundly apraxic, profoundly motor-impaired, yet only mildly autistic–are probably extremely rare. But that doesn’t diminish the tragedy of their situation: that of being full of language and thoughts but completely unable to communicate them. To the extent that we can help these “locked in” individuals, it’s urgent we do so.

One way would be to devise some sort of physical assistance that eliminates the motor-control or body-awareness barriers to writing or typing. Perhaps if some sort of human facilitator were to provide such assistance, a profoundly apraxic, motor-impaired person would suddenly be able to communicate all the thoughts they’ve had locked up inside.

Such barrier-surmounting assistance is purported to exist already: it goes under the name of “facilitated communication.” More on this anon.

EGGs and NEGGs

A core principle we were taught at Morningside Academy’s Summer School Institute: whenever you introduce a concept, you must always provide not only examples, but nonexamples, as well, especially what Kent Johnson called “close-in nonexamples.

A close-in nonexample is close but no cigar

That’s what gasstation does herewhen he points out that a lot of people, having learned that colons introduce lists:

So that in the nature of man we find three principle causes of quarrel: first, competition; secondly, diffidence, thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second for safety; and the third, for reputation.

Thomas Hobbes

. . . proceed to put colons before every list:

So that in the nature of man we find: first, competition; secondly, diffidence, thirdly, glory. The first maketh men invade for gain; the second for safety; and the third, for reputation.

In other words:

I went to the store and I bought supplies for breakfast: eggs, bacon, juice. (RIGHT)

I went to the store and I bought: eggs, bacon, juice. (WRONG)

Gasstation solves the how-to-teach-it-fast issue by simply telling people not to put a colon after a verb. 

Wonderful!

I think this approach would work when teachers crash-tutor standardized language tests. The challenge, tutoring ACT & SAT English, is that you’re trying to cram a not-insignificant amount of material into a student’s head in a very short period of time.

The material itself is easy, but learning it via brute memorization in 6 weeks’ time is not. 

Don’t put a colon after a verb is exactly the kind of super-short, super-efficient rule a student can pick up quickly and hold on to. No need to get into “completers” and direct objects and all the rest of it.

Just: no colons after verbs.

I like!

gasstationwithoutpumps on colons (and a link to his book)

7.12.2 Colons

Colons are also frequently misused, generally by inserting them where no punctuation at all would be best.

The colon is normally used between a noun phrase and a restatement of the noun phrase. A common noun phrase before a colon is the following—consider the following: thing one, thing two, and thing three. This usage is so common that a lot of people try to put colons before every list, which is simply wrong. Note that having the list displayed as bullet points doesn’t change any of the punctuation rules. There are no colons unless you are separating a noun phrase from its restatement.

OK: . . . include the following: a resistor, a capacitor, and a transistor.
No colon: . . . include a resistor, a capacitor, and a transistor.

Don’t use a colon between a verb and its object, nor between a preposition and its object, even if the object is a displayed list or a math formula.

============================================

The book is on electronics, but there is a chapter on writing design reports. That chapter is available in the free sample chapters . . . 

I’ll be updating the book soon (probably December, before the winter courses start in January). People who buy the book get notified of the updates, which are free to purchasers.

 

Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part VI

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

In my previous post, I discussed how there might be factors besides Joint Attention deficits that could contribute to the failure to acquire spoken language. As I wrote:

in some cases the primary culprit for lack of spoken language may be apraxia of speech rather than autism-related Joint Attention deficits. If so, then the autism itself may be relatively mild. In particular, the person’s receptive Joint Attention behaviors, along with his/her ability to pay attention to what people are doing when they speak, may be only mildly impaired. In this case, he or she should be able to acquire receptive language–to learn to understand what people say–even if he or can’t speak.

What this means is that the inability to speak doesn’t entail the inability to produce other forms of language–for example, written language or sign language.

Conversely (and not so surprisingly) the inability to write or use sign language doesn’t entail the inability to speak. Perhaps you no one has taught you how to read, write, or sign. Perhaps you have a visual impairment. Or perhaps you have a fine motor impairment that impedes writing, signing, or even typing.

While the last possibility–a fine motor impairment that impedes typing– is relatively rare, fine motor impairments can be co-morbid with autism.

So while autism at its severest levels (as I argued earlier) means being unable produce language in any medium, mild autism doesn’t necessarily mean the opposite. Theoretically, you could have someone who is tuned in enough (via Receptive Joint Attention) to acquire receptive language, but so severely apraxic and so severely impaired in their fine motor skills that they are unable to speak, sign, or type indepedently. Theoretically, you could have someone who understands everything they hear or read but still can’t produce, on their own, any language in any medium.

And, while it seems like such individuals would be highly atypical, even within autism, a slew of recent news reports, books, and movies would have us believe otherwise. Stay tuned for a closer look.

 

A colon test

I need to follow up on the SAT question I brought up the other day, but first: colons.

Hmm.

I see I’ve just broken the colon rule I was trying to explain to my student last night. 

Oh, well. You’re supposed to break the colon rule, writing blog posts. 

Anyway, last night’s question:

And protect them she did: When workers went on strike, Jones secured food donations and temporary living arrangements. 

72.
F. NO CHANGE
G. protections, to name a few, included:
H. she defined protection as:
J. she did this by:

ACT Test 1572CPRE – English Test

The correct answer was F, no change. My student chose J.

I was trying to explain why “J” was wrong . . . and I couldn’t for the life of me remember the terrific colon-use passage I came across just a year ago.

Colon usage is yet another area where, before I began teaching composition, I had essentially zero conscious knowledge. I used colons, but I didn’t know why I did why did. All I knew about colons was that sometimes they sounded right and sometimes they didn’t. 

Such is the nature of basal ganglia learning. You don’t know what you know.

About a year ago I found a terrific explanation of colon whys and wherefores, which I have now not only forgotten but misplaced to boot.

So last night I handled the issue by saying that the clause before the colon in my student’s new sentence lacked its “completer.”

WITHOUT COMPLETER: And she did this by:

WITH COMPLETER: And she did this by taking care of their needs:

Sidebar: The idea of a “completer” seems to work well with students who’ve never been taught grammar. 

All of my students have heard of subjects and predicates, and when you formulate subject-predicate as subject-predicate-completer, they get it immediately. In class, I use Martha Kolln’s ur-sentences (I think these are Kolln’s) to wake this knowledge up in their minds:

The ur-sentences:

Something does something. Rex chased the cat.
Something is something. Rex is sleepy.

That second something is the completer:

Subject | Finite verb | Completer

I give them an intransitive sentence, too, for good measure:
Something does.  Rex growls.

Last night I told my student that if the clause he’s put before a colon needs a completer, it has to have it. You can’t lop off the completer and install a colon in its place.

I think that’s right, but I remember the explanation I’ve lost track of as being more satisfying than that.
.

Punctuation Made Simple

Looking around the web for something better, I found this, at Punctuation Made Simple:

If you aren’t sure whether you need a colon in a particular sentence, here is a handy test: read the sentence, and when you reach the colon, substitute the word namely; if the sentence reads through smoothly, then there’s a good chance that you do need a colon. For example, you can read any of the example sentences above with the word namely in the place of the colon:

Joe has only one thing on his mind [namely] profit.
Joe has only one thing on his mind [namely] his stock portfolio.
Joe has only one thing on his mind [namely] he wants to get rich.
Joe has three things on h is mind [namely] stocks, bonds, and certificates of deposit.

I love that ! A simple word test.

It doesn’t work for question 72, but I like it nonetheless.

About the particular issue my student was having, “Punctuation Made Simple” has this to say:

. . . do not place the colon after the verb in a sentence, even when you are introducing something, because the verb itself introduces and the colon would be redundant.

“Do not place the colon after the verb”. . . . In standard written English, I think that may be right. It’s certainly easy to remember, and I know the student I’m working with can use it. He recognizes verbs. 

The explanation for the rule–“the verb itself introduces“–is probably more trouble than its worth. (I’m thinking it may be wrong to boot — ? )

But the rest of the page is great.

Must go Skype my student — I’ll try to get the follow-up post re: SAT 2 up soon.

Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part V

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

My previous post drew a connection between the severity of autism (whose diagnostic measures include Joint Attention behaviors) and the severity of the language impairment associated with autism. This connection, I suggested, explains why a significant proportion of people on the spectrum (somewhere around 25%) are nonverbal.

But does this mean that everyone who is nonverbal is so because of Joint Attention deficits? Are there other reasons why someone on the autism spectrum might be, or appear to be, nonverbal?

The answer to this question depends in part on what we mean by “nonverbal.” Do we mean unable to produce any language at all, or unable to speak?

As far as not being able to speak goes, there are other culprits besides Receptive Joint Attention. Profound hearing loss is one. If you can’t hear other people’s speech or your own oral output, then, absent intense speech and language therapy, you’ll likely remain orally nonverbal. Apraxia of speech is another. From the NIH:

AOS is a neurological disorder that affects the brain pathways involved in planning the sequence of movements involved in producing speech. The brain knows what it wants to say, but cannot properly plan and sequence the required speech sound movements.

I highlight this definition of Apraxia of Speech not just because the condition is less familiar than deafness, but because it has been found to be co-morbid with autism. This means that a significant number of nonverbal individuals have both autism and AOS.

Putting all this together, we see that in some cases the primary culprit for lack of spoken language may be apraxia of speech rather than autism-related Joint Attention deficits. If so, then the autism itself may be relatively mild. In particular, the person’s receptive Joint Attention behaviors, along with his/her ability to pay attention to what people are doing when they speak, may be only mildly impaired. In this case, he or she should be able to acquire receptive language–to learn to understand what people say–even if he or can’t speak.

But the inability to speak doesn’t entail the inability to produce other forms of language–for example, written language or sign language. For more on the broader sense of verbal/nonverbal, stay tuned.

Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part IV

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

So in my previous posts on the subject (starting here), I discussed how Receptive Joint Attention

JointAttention2

correlates with language learning, and how reduced Receptive Joint Attention behaviors impede the acquisition of both spoken and written language.  When RJA behaviors are at a minimum, so is the amount of language learned–whether we’re talking about spoken or written language.

What does any of this have to do with autism?

The connection goes back to the clinical definitions of autism: the definitions that guide how psychologists and psychiatrists make their diagnoses. In the U.S., there’s the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM); worldwide, there’s the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

In both these guidelines, Joint Attention figures prominently. The criteria for autism in the most recent DSM (the DSM V), for example, include these:

  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

And this:

  • Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period.

The things I’ve bold-faced–particularly responding to social interactions and making eye contact–are the sorts of Receptive Joint Attention behaviors that, I argue earlier, are essential for the acquisition of written and spoken language. Reduced RJA behaviors in early development–when language acquisition begins–mean significant limits on language acquisition.

Another of the criteria relates indirectly to Receptive Joint Attention:

  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).

Highly restrictive interests, combined with a preference for objects over people (which is an early predictor of autism in infants), is one reason for reduced Receptive Joint Attention behaviors in autism.

Here is one more DSM guideline:

  • Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior.

Collectively, what all this means is that the more severe the autism, the more limited the acquisition of spoken and written language. At its most severe, autism means total lack of language–a.k.a. non-verbal autism.

But for some people, severe/non-verbal autism has come to mean something completely different… Stay tuned.