Saturday, January 12, 2008

Words Matter

There is power in the written and the spoken word.
There is perhaps even more power to be found in the introspective use of language. This self-conversation, regardless of what form (words or pictures), language, or stage of development it occurs in, will have a significant impact on not only our choice of language when we do communicate, but also on our overall view of the world.

As an aside to this, I believe that all of us carry on this internal self-communication, regardless of our ability to indicate this communication to others. This is an important concept for me to present to you, as it is a foundational belief that dictates a lot of my other views of those whose are autistic in such a way that they are unable to speak or, in some cases, communicate via virtually any means at all with others.

In the world of functional behavioral analysis and resulting behavior modification techniques (which combine to form ABA), there are several commonly used terms which collectively can be referred to as the vernacular of the profession. Without discriminating against those who work in this profession, without assigning value-based judgments on those who have, or might, or will use these terms, and while considering the clinical and functional value of these terms (at least as intended) lets review some of the language and present some alternatives as to how we could think of/say the same thing:

"He has shown a 'splinter skill' in regards to his use of the computer mouse."
He likes to spend time on the computer.

"She has a tendency to go 'off task' frequently."
She's taking a break.

"He is 'perseverating' on certain toys at the expense of other 'imaginative play'."
This kid is a world-class 'Cars' fan!

"Her episodes of 'non-compliance' are increasing during the lunch hour."
She is taking a stand that she wants a salad with Italian dressing. Or that the afternoon sun is too bright on that side of the room that we always make her sit.

"His 'episodic severity' has increased significantly since we changed his room."
His former roommate reminded him of home because he looked so much like his brother. And they hugged a lot - the new roommate doesn't do that.

"Ongoing 'food aversion' issues make mealtime such a challenge."
She recognizes that a lot of dairy affects her digestive tract and results in discomfort, so she has decided to only eat dairy for breakfast.

"He has 'regressed'. He used to play chess every day and now just throws the pieces on the floor."
Ever since his long-time chess-playing partner died, his loneliness is intensified each time he sits at the chess table.

I could go on, but perhaps you see the point. Can we, as a community of autistic people and those who love them, presume competence at all times when considering/interacting with those who are unable to communicate in a way that we can easily understand? Yes, we can. And I think that carefully reviewing our language, our words, our internal dialogue and the external result of it, can provide a great place to start.


Niksmom said...

Steve, this is powerful —and empowering. I so often struggle with others' (and often my own, I must admit) need to classify Nik's non-typical behaviors within the constraints of their own assumptions. I am learning, daily, to give lots of latitude and trying to remind myself that every single one of Nik's actions/behaviors is an actual communication. It's not perfect or consistent but when I do that it is better all the way around. When I treat my son with respect for the intelligent being I know he is he shines and blossoms. Sounds so simple, doesn't it? Yet I often get "accused" (for lack of a better word) by others that I can't possibly know what Nik is comunicating. Ha!

Ed said...

Hi Steve,
I really like your overall veiw of this and these examples are really good.

I think it's also good to sometimes say the kid is angry and this is how he shows it. People get angry and claiming we autistics are saints doesn't get us anywhere.

Also, there are even more ways I can think of than you have shown here to eliminate value judgements on behavior and communication.

There are so many subtlties in speach within the autistic poulation. While nonverbal vs. verbal is the worst assumption, there many unrecognised subtlties within ALL communication of the total population of people that the vast differences within the autistic community really have a way of either devalidating how individual autistics are seen to communicate altogether or needing desperately to package our individual communication in a neat box as in; good or bad behavior, smart or not smart intelligence, and high or low functioning, (which is absurd).That's alway been my biggest hurdle.

It's really not that hard to meet people where they are but others don't often choose to try. I can only base that on how few I've seen be willing to try.

The example's you gave validated the autistic experiance alot more. That helps everyone. Thankyou

kristina said...

Thanks for this----a good reminder for me to as a teacher.

laurentius rex said...

Tis the same with every proffession though, verbosity bosses the verity.

Sharon said...

I've been out of the therapy loop for too long. I've never even heard some of those expressions! 'Splinter skills' and 'episodic severity' ...phooey. (That's my considered opinion on the matter!)

Those are good examples Steve and the comments here are interesting too. I agree with Ed; sometimes the autistic person is just pissed off!

neil said...

It's not just the words we use but also the way we use them.

When my daughter does something a bit different in public, something that catches attention, I pretty much never say to anyone that she has autism, not because I'm hiding her condition, it's just that I don't want my daughter hearing it as I don't know what long term effect it would have on her, always excusing her behaviour.

For instance, every time she does something a bit different or strange, it would be like, don't worry that's her autism, when a lot of the stuff she does is just normal child behaviour, expressed in her unique way, where autism can't really be blamed. How would you feel if everytime you did something, someone explained it as autism? I want my daughter to feel normal, sure she has autism and we talk about it openly in front of her, but I don't want to use it as an excuse and I don't want her to use it as an excuse either. I want her to grow up into her own person, someone she's comfortable with.

Steve D said...

Niksmom -
Thank you for your comment here, as it typifies the ideal approach by my estimation. Its nice to hear my thoughts echoed back by someone who is trying to do this on a daily basis.
Ed - I always appreciate your comments. Thanks for that.
Larry - I agree to a point, but think that the powerlessness of the "patient" in many of these cases is increased due to communication problems. Its a lot different than, for example, a student/teacher relationship.
Neil - I totally relate to what your are saying, and I have the same goals with my son.
And Kristina, thanks as always for stopping by :)