Beyond Reasonable: a memoir of autism, adoption, and Facilitated Communication

Ralph Savarese’s memoir “Reasonable People” recounts a momentous project undertaken by two people who are manifestly much more than merely reasonable. In the course of the late 1990s, Savarese and his wife decided to adopt a profoundly autistic child, and they succeeded in educating him to the point of communicating in complex sentences, reflecting thoughtfully on his childhood and his autistic identity, composing poetry, and thriving in regular ed classes.

There’s just one issue. The boy composes these complex sentences, thoughtful reflections, poetry, and regular ed assignments through Facilitated Communication.

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Winograd schemas as a window into reading comprehension

In one of my earlier posts on the limits of Artificial Intelligence, I reported on the difficulty AI has figuring out what “it” means. As measured by so-called Winograd schemas like the one below, even the most sophisticated AI performs at levels not much better than chance:

SENTENCE 1: “The city council refused the demonstrators a permit because they feared violence.”

QUESTION: Who feared violence?

A. The city council B. The demonstrators

SENTENCE 2: “The city council refused the demonstrators a permit because they advocated violence.”

QUESTION: Who advocated violence?

A. The city council B. The demonstrators

The problem is that even state of the art AI lacks worldly knowledge–including background knowledge about city councils and demonstrators and their typical concerns and plausible goals. Who might fear violence and feel a responsibility to prevent it? Who might advocate violence?

Of course, even the occasional human has been known to have deficits in background knowledge, and those deficits have increasingly been implicated in problems with reading comprehension. In general, if you lack the knowledge that a text takes for granted, you’ll struggle to make sense of anything the text asserts that’s based on that knowledge.

For example, if you don’t know about the functions of antimicrobial agents, or what bacterial resistance and immunosuppression entail, you’ll struggle to make sense of this paragraph (even if you happen to know words like “pathogenic” and “concomitant”):

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What Grammarly overlooks

In my last post, I discussed how Grammarly’s feedback mostly targets individual words and phrases–with the exception of its knee-jerk rejection of passive voice. This means that Grammarly mostly overlooks sentence-level revision tools–i.e., the sorts of tools that Catherine and I address in Europe in the Modern World.

One of these tools is passive voice. Compare:

Despite these harsh conditions, the settlement with the Nazis relieved most French men and women.


Despite these harsh conditions, most French men and women were relieved by the settlement with the Nazis.

In the second sentence “the settlement with the Nazis”, moved by passive voice to sentence-final position, receives more emphasis than it did in the original.

Choosing appropriate end-focus involves considerations of sentence meaning and communicative intent that are beyond today’s AI. The same goes for another key element of good writing: sentence cohesion.

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