Novelist David Mitchell feels he’s figured out autism. It is not a socio-cognitive disorder, but a communication disorder. This communication disorder, he says, “locks you in, it makes it very very hard to express yourself in any way.”
What has inspired Mitchell’s revelation about autism is a single book of questionable authenticity: Naoki Higashida’s The Reason I Jump. Originally written in Japanese, purportedly by a non-speaking autistic boy using a letterboard, the book was later translated into English by Mitchell and his wife. Most recently, it has morphed into the movie The Reason I Jump which features five other individuals with autism, two of whom use letterboards. See here and here for discussion.
As with the letterboard users in the movie, all videos of Higashida show him typing with an assistant (usually his mother) within visual range. Sometimes the letterboard is placed on a stationary surface instead of being held up (as it invariably is in the movie), but you never see Higashida typing alone.
Despite frequent claims to the contrary, FC doesn’t require physical contact. Thus, the newer versions of FC—Rapid Prompting Method and Spelling to Communicate—are still FC. As the Clever Hans spectacle and its aftermath teaches us, responses generated by humans and horses alike can be guided by visual cues like subtle changes in body language. Without rigorous message-blind testing, we have no idea whether those who never communicate completely independently—i.e., who can’t type without a long-time/trained assistant sitting next to them—are the true authors of the messages they generate.
In a recent interview on New Zealand public broadcasting, drawing on his single, highly questionable source (the book he helped translate), David Mitchell has these things to say about autism. (I’ve interspersed my commentary in italics).
- “it is always best and most helpful to assume competence.”
“Assume competence” harks back to Douglas Biklen, the disability studies professor who brought FC to the US.
As a student, I’ve found it counterproductive when my teachers assume competence. I prefer for them not to make any assumptions about my skills but instead to evaluate me thoroughly enough to find out my strengths and weaknesses. Indeed, reading up on the successes of Precision Teaching, I’ve recently been thinking about how much better my higher-level math classes would have gone had the professors not assumed so much competence.
- “autism is primarily a communication disorder, not a cognitive one”.
- “even in the case of a non-verbal autistic person, what is going on in their heads is as imaginative and enlightened as what is going on in a neurotypical person’s head.”
In other words, all those experiments by autism experts like Uta Frith and colleagues, Nancy Minshew and colleagues, and Helen Tager Flusberg and colleagues, etc., etc., are wrong. Somehow, their many peer-reviewed papers, published in top journals, must have revealed fatal design flaws–or something like that. If only novelists and film-makers had been there to help them out!
- “The old myths of autism – meaning that the autistic person hasn’t got emotions or has no theory of mind, or doesn’t get that there are other people in the world that have minds like they do – these are exactly that; myths, pernicious and unhelpful myths, that exacerbate the problem of living with autism in a neurotypical world.”
Here’s the real myth: that *anyone* who knows *anything* about autism has *ever* claimed that autistic people don’t have emotions.
But, yes, there are plenty of well-designed experiments showing difficulty with Theory of Mind tests (For starters, see Frith’s Autism: Explaining the Enigma and references therein).
- “I believe that autistic people have the same emotional intelligence, imaginative intelligence and intellectual intelligence as you and I have. But if we’ve bought into an ideology that says that is not the case, to have that challenged is uncomfortable and confirmation bias kicks in, and that can fuel scepticism.”
Who is the one with confirmation bias? Surely not David Mitchel! (In the interview we learn that “Mitchell and his wife Yoshida are working with their son toward using a letter board to communicate”). David Mitchell, please met my son, or Jessy Park, or Temple Grandin. All sorts of “intelligences” appear in autism, but they are qualitatively different (in interesting ways!) from neurotypical intelligences. Let’s not make neurotypical assumptions here.
Re Higashida in particular, Mitchell says:
- Higashida has never once in his life had the luxury of the ease of the normal “verbal ping-pong” of a flowing conversation.
Mitchell neglects to explain why Higashida can fluently read what he has typed—but only after he has typed it out. Why does he has to type it out first?
- “This effortless absence of a gap between speech and thought, it’s an ‘app’ [or technique] he [Higashida] hasn’t got. So he has to do it in a very manual syllable-by-syllable manner.”
Mitchell neglects to mention that there is no known language disorder that fits this description.
Re skeptics of Higashida’s typing, Mitchell has these things to say:
- “there is a temptingly easy cowardice to assuming that non-verbal equals a lack of thought.”
Is it cowardice, or is it basic semantics and logic? If “verbal” means words, then non-verbal means no words. If you have no words, then, unlike most people, you don’t think in words. But, as we all know from Temple Grandin, you might still think in pictures. If “verbal” means *spoken* words, and if you’re merely non-speaking, then, as we all know from Deaf people and Steven Hawking, you can still have verbal thoughts. Where does cowardice fit into this?
- “There’s still this idea that an autistic person has to prove that it’s them. No-one’s ever asked me to prove that I’m the author of my works, yet somehow if you’re an autistic writer it’s incumbent upon you before anyone’ll begin to take you seriously, that you have to prove it is you writing your sentences.”
I’ve never asked my autistic son to prove that he is writing his sentences—for the simple reason that he writes them independently, without the same few people sitting next to him, within visual range, while he does so. But were this the case, I would want the people sitting next to him to prove it’s not them. Indeed, when it comes to assignments that my son has allegedly completed in class, I have always wanted my son’s aides to show that it’s not them doing his work for him (as even aides with the best intentions can unwittingly end up doing from time to time). I have never ask my son to prove that it’s him, but I have occasionally asked his aides to convince me it’s not them.
- “It’s as if their very right to authorship is under this cloud of doubt. For me it’s not only wrong – that’s the ethically dubious position to take. It takes these kids years to learn how to do this… and I just want to scream at the sceptics and say ‘how dare you’.”
The same words could be screamed at those who peddle in these scientifically discredited methods while resisting every request/offer to test them scientifically.
On the other hand, parents who fall for the quacks and think they’re doing the best for their kids deserve our heartfelt sympathy—provided that they themselves aren’t participating in this toxic dissemination of misinformation all around the world and/or using it to promote their careers.
After all, the potential human rights abuse isn’t in asking who is authoring the messages. Rather, it is in refusing to investigate whether vulnerable autistic voices are being hijacked–whether by self-serving quacks or by well-intentioned dupes.