Small miracles in deafness and autism

I’m overdue for an “autism diaries” update–as a few recent developments with J have reminded me. At a time when the world as a whole seems so profoundly screwed up, it’s nice to reflect on how far this one little guy (now 6 foot 5) has come.

J was born profoundly deaf–so deaf that a brainstem test revealed no auditory awareness whatsoever. As this news took shape (literally, in the flattening lines of an EEG screen), we had no idea about cochlear implants. As far as we knew, J faced a future of profound silence.

That vision was soon moderated by cochlear implant pamphlets and phone calls to the parents of implanted toddlers. But just how well an implant would work for J in particular remained disconcertingly uncertain. There was, in the late 1990s, simply not enough data for firm predictions.

Some three months after J was implanted, I played a chord on the piano while he was facing away from me, standing on a chair, engaged in what we thought was a passing hobby: turning on and off a ceiling fan. I played the chord and he promptly turned around and looked right at me.

But why, the speech therapist wondered a few months later, did he remain so oblivious to speech? Enter diagnosis #2.

J as it turned out, was not just “profoundly” deaf, but “moderately” autistic. Not only that, but “moderate,” in the context of autism, was pretty bad.  Unlike the “moderate” hearing loss we’d initially hoped for way back when, “moderate” autism (or so we were told) meant something much more debilitating: some language, minimal “splinter” skills, a lifetime of dependence.

Fast forward 19 years and, after several years of GrammarTrainer, an intense regimen of schooling (mostly in regular classes) and one-on-one tutoring by a variety of creative and talented lay people (and his parents), together with multiple-times-per-week outings all over the city and state, J is, according to two recent and thorough psychological exams, ….still moderately autistic.

But he’s also slowly making his way through college, majoring in computer science (and/or math). Though he lives at home, he independently gets himself to class every day, keeps track of assignments, exams, and schedule changes, meets with professors or TAs as needed, turns in his work, and participates in class and extra-curricular activities.

He’s even done some in-class presentations–and done OK on them. His grades aren’t perfect, and there’s nearly always a class or two that doesn’t work out the first time around and must be dropped at the last minute. But he’s managed to complete the English and Communications requirements, and has done well in two other courses you’d think would be huge struggles.

The first was linguistics. Assignments for this class included phonetic transcriptions of spoken English, and I doubted whether our profoundly deaf child could handle all the acoustic details. Would he hear the subtle air puff that accompanies the “p”-sound, but only when it occurs at the beginning of the word? Would he hear the difference between the “p” in “pat” vs. “spat”? I watched with amazement as J effortlessly completed these transcriptions, only then realizing how much of a miracle the cochlear implant really is:

spat [spæt]
pat [phæt]
potato [pəthéjtow]

The second course (still in progress) is psychology. You’d think a subject like this–with so much of its focus on emotions and social dynamics–would be particularly out of reach for a student with moderate autism. How accessible could concepts like oral fixation, or super-ego, or collective unconscious, or peer pressure, or social anxiety disorder, possible be?

As it turns out, there are two moderating factors. First, to the extent that psychology analyzes concepts that most of us have some intuitive understanding of, it makes those concepts more accessible to those who don’t. Second, a lot of psychology involves more accessible topics like neurology, cognition, and learning–some of which really resonate with J. Not surprisingly, he particularly enjoyed the chapter on cognitive illusions.

Still, it’s amazing to me to see (once I’ve laboriously worked through the textbook’s explanations with him) how quickly J grasps and generalizes concepts like operant and classical conditioning.

Just for the heck of it, I brought up this last topic in a recent exchange of text messages. I had headed out for the evening, having told J (when asked) that there would be no ceiling fans where I was going. A few hours later, he texted:

Where are you


I sent him this picture of the ceiling of my current location:

J’s response:

Are you blind?

Me, a bit confused:

Are you deaf?


I thought you said no fans

Were there fans in the picture? I’d somehow not noticed them. I looked up and scrutinized the ceiling and yes, sure enough, camouflaged among the black ceiling lights hanging from the black ceiling were some black ceiling fans.

Me (a bit sheepishly):

Well, they’re not moving

And they’re not going to move.


Ok but how many fans does the restaurant have?




All off.

And they will stay off.

I then decided it was my turn:

Now answer my question:

Are fans

a. An unconditioned response
b. A conditioned response
c. An unconditioned stimulus.
d. A conditioned stimulus.


J (a short moment later):



Conditional on what?


I don’t remember.

It was years ago

It sure was.

Help desk

Here’s a question a friend just asked re: the following–

I live with my father in the summer, when I’m on vacation from school.

Why does that comma make sense?

The handbook rule (speaking of main and subordinate clauses) is that we use commas  when the subordinate clause introduces the main clause, but not when the subordinate clause follows the main clause:

I wake up early because I like to walk the dogs before I go to work.

Because I like to walk the dogs before I go to work, I wake up early.

The “I live with my father” sentence seems to break that rule, but it ‘sounds right,’ so the question is why is that.

Why does the comma after summer sound right?

My guess is that “when I’m on vacation from school” is functioning as a kind of nonrestrictive modifier–a parenthetical–but I’m no linguist … so we will await word from Katharine, who is.

UPDATE: Katharine says it’s nonrestrictive!

It’s a lot of fun having a friend who’s a linguist.

A diminishing infection of casual speech by edited prose?

A colleague of mine once told me a story about the lingering effects of a psycholinguistics experiment on a college campus. Incentivized by the sticks and carrots of their department, the subjects of the experiment, naturally, were mostly undergraduate psychology majors. These subjects were induced, through subtle, ingenious prompting, to use passive voice constructions: to favor sentences like “I was induced by the clever prompts” over “The clever prompts induced me.”

Long after the experiment ended, its subjects continued–apparently subconsciously—to favor passive voice. Their habits spread like a contagious meme throughout the rest of the campus—and on into incoming classes. Years later, even after all the subjects had graduated, a higher-than-average use of passive voice could still be observed on this particular campus. Or so the story goes.

Apocryphal though it may be, it exemplifies a real phenomenon. Language, as a communicative system, also functions as a communicative disease. Before you can say “Jack Robinson” (does anyone say that anymore?), everyone is saying “impactful” or “yeah no” or “bad optics.”

Sources for these memes range from sitcoms to stand-up comedy to sports talk to management-speak to psycho-babble to political punditry. A smaller influence, but still significant, is written language. Though much of written language is more formal and complex than oral language, the vocabulary and language patterns we encounter in reading still potentially prime our word choices and phrasings in speech.

So what happens when reading habits change? What happens when your average person spends less and less time immersed in sophisticated, literary prose, thereby soaking in an ever narrower range of vocabulary and syntax? What happens when people spend less time reading carefully edited texts, where there are fewer mistakes in grammar and word choice than what is inevitable in spontaneous speech? Might this have an aggregate effect on oral language—on what all of us are collectively hearing and uttering and immersed in as listeners and speakers? Might the result be an impoverishing of vocabulary, a simplification of syntax, and a proliferation of linguistic errors in our everyday conversations–even among those of us who still spend significant time engaging with sophisticated texts?

It’s true that errors and simplifications have been around forever, but I wonder if they’re more common now than back when sophisticated, carefully edited texts reached more people. I wonder this when I see preposition disagreement and dangling modifiers and mangled phrases like “he beat me by a long shot” and “attribute hearing loss to language delays” everywhere.

I wonder this when I hear simpler words and word combinations replacing more complex ones: “reveal” for “revelation”; “fail” for “failure”; “push back” for “resistance,” “look-see” for “inspection,” and “nice to haves” for “desiderata.”

I wonder this when I hear “comparable” increasingly pronounced with the accent on the second syllable—compArable—making it more like the simpler verb form from which it derives, and evoking the way a beginning reader might read the word, especially if he has never heard it pronounced in what was once its standard pronunciation.

Again, errors and simplifications have been around forever, and these recent simplifications may simply be an innocuous continuation of a long-lived trend. After all, we’ve long had “move” for “movement,” “win” for “victory,” “find” for “discovery,” “dig” for “excavation,” and “talk” for “conversation.” But I’m wondering if what we’re hearing now is part of a bigger, more troubling trend: one that reflects the diminishing corrective influence on all of us of the kind of colorfully worded, precisely phrased, and carefully edited language that appears only in certain types of writing—and that depends for its survival on a critical mass of certain types of readers.

Katharine & Doug on how to ask a question in English

re: Linguistics on the fly and the do-operator

Here’s Katharine:

I love the Question Rule! I run through a gradual derivation of it with my education students so they can see how tricky it is to teach people with language delays and people learning English as a foreign language. Most people (however automatically they form grammatical sentences) have no idea how they do it!

The basic rule is purely formal (as opposed to semantic): when there’s an auxiliary or “be”, use that; otherwise use “do”.

Is that unusual?
Are you noticing anything unusual?
Have you noticed anything usual?
Had you noticed anything unusual at that point?
Will you report anything unusual?
Might you have noticed something unusual?

“Do”, like the fronted auxiliary verbs in the above sentences, is what carries the tense:
Did/do you see anything unusual?

And here’s Doug:

That would be what at least John McWhorter1refers to as the “meaningless do”, which is one of the features of English that makes it an odd language. His claim (or perhaps speculation?) is that it came into the language by contact with Celtic languages. And you’re right, it can be very hard for ESL students to learn idiomatically.

In most Germanic languages, a pattern like, “Eat we breakfast?” would be idiomatic, where in English the idiom, of course, is “Do we eat breakfast?”

1. Linguistics Prof at Columbia and brilliant lecturer on linguistics, including in the Great Courses series


One of the things I loved about working with Katharine on the textbook is that she always knows the answer to grammar question — not just knows the answer, which I usually know intuitively, but can explain the answer.

This sentence stumped me:

The F.B.I. also arrested two of Mr. Rahim’s associates, whom prosecutors say were involved in the plot.
From: One by One, ISIS Social Media Experts Are Killed as Result of F.B.I. Program

That “whom” sounded wrong.

Usually, when something sounds wrong to me, it is wrong. But then, when I read the sentence again, thinking about its grammar, I wasn’t sure.

Wasn’t that “whom” the direct object of “say“?

Whom” is the direct object form. Not “who.”

I’ll post Katharine’s explanation tomorrow. (Or make her do it!)

Teacher’s lament

I’m going to be working with a graduate level research class next week, and in the process of trying to track down papers on the relationship between writing and thinking, I’ve come across a fabulous passage, quoted in Exploring Literacies Theory, Research and Practice by Helen de Silva Joyce and Susan Feez:

Bringing up the question of learning to read and write reminds us of the comment by the primary-school teacher who remarked, ‘It’s lucky we’re not responsible for teaching them to talk. If we were they’d never learn that either’. Nevertheless, a surprising number of people do become literate, mostly through being taught.
(Halliday 2009/1978: 178)

Halliday and Hasan are two of my favorites. Our writing curriculum is strongly influenced by their work (which I have yet to read in full, I should add).

I don’t post this passage to malign teachers, by the way. Not at all.

Being good at teaching isn’t enough. To teach well, teachers need a field-tested curriculum.

But instead of providing teachers a proven curriculum, schools expect them to Google lessons and posters on Pinterest, purchase them from Teachers Pay Teachers, or stay up till all hours of the night writing curriculum themselves.

I personally have spent what feels like years of my life Googling lessons, handouts, and worksheets, and in the end what I have to show for it is a massive heap of digital stuff (some of it fantastically helpful, to be sure) that doesn’t cohere and isn’t a curriculum.