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Amanda Gorman’s Final Exam: On the Limits of ‘Scientific’ Analyses of Autistic Poetry, the Example of Perceived Lack of Analogical Thinking

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In Ilona Roth’s Imagination and the Awareness of Self in Autistic Spectrum Poets, she sets out to find answers to “one of the most elusive but fundamental questions posed by autistic conditions: what is the mental world of the person with autism like?” through an examination of autistic poetry (145). Whereas understanding other minds, especially those that are neurologically different, is a question of both great interest and importance, Roth unfortunately undertakes this project from a distinctly neurotypical perspective. Amanda Baggs points out in her video In My Own Language that the predominant view is to see autism as an inherently mysterious condition, rather than recognize the roadblocks of neurotypicals to understand autistic perspectives and communication. Though Roth admits that researchers have misjudged many features of autistic imagination and awareness of self, she does little to reverse or even question the framework in which the theories have arisen. In this paper I hope to show that Roth’s approach is a misguided one, through the example of her explanation about her findings on metaphor and simile in autistic poetry. I will contend that the fact that autistic poets use fewer similes does not show their inability to understand or use analogical thinking, but rather, may point to the person with autism’s heightened awareness of all linguistic communication as already functioning only within an analogical space.
Roth frames her project as examining whether or not autistics have an inner life at all, or if they just live in the here and now (145). One of the ways to figure this out, she presumes, is to look at whether or not autistic poets employ “imaginative language” by which she means primarily the use of metaphor and simile. Roth conceives of the research from which she is drawing as a “wide ranging study of autistic poetry” that “sought to integrate a scientific approach to the autistic mental world…with an attempt to understand the autistic poets’ points of view on their work” (152). The study included poetry from only five published autistic spectrum poets, though, and the poems were analyzed not through any kind of literary analysis, but rather through “quantitative content analysis” (152). She was impressed to find that autistic poets make substantial use of metaphor; she found that they use metaphor about as often as non-autistic poets do (155). She takes their sustaining metaphors over the course of multiple lines and stanzas as evidence of the fact that they had a relatively sophisticated grasp of the concept of metaphor. She rather unfairly qualifies this, though, by saying that the autistic poets’ metaphors are less creative since they play on “standard or idiomatic figures of speech” (155). Roth then explains her surprise at finding that given their ability to write metaphors, considering autistic poets employed significantly fewer similes in their writing than the non-autistic poet control group. The reason she is especially surprised at this finding, she tells us, is because in “Happe’s studies of figurative language understanding in people on the spectrum,” it was supposedly demonstrated that simile is the most accessible form of figurative language, whereas metaphor is more difficult, second only to irony. Rather than examine what figurative language might be like from an autistic perspective, Roth rather hastily concludes that when it comes to generating the example oneself, composing a simile must actually be harder and require a tighter control on language than composing a metaphor (155).
If one takes the voices of those with autism, like Amanda Baggs, seriously, it is not hard to see why it is misguided to evaluate autistic mental life by how well a person with autism can use neurotypical ways of communication in a neurotypical fashion. Baggs claims to have her own kind of language in which she directly communicates with her surroundings in a non-symbolic way. To use neurotypical spoken language for her is to restrict the ways she has of communicating into a predefined sphere of shared symbolic meanings. It is clear that Baggs not only has an understanding of how language can function analogically, and notices the necessarily analogical nature of spoken and written language. This is an insight that many theorists from Rousseau to Rorty have arrived upon. Percy Bysshe Shelley also defended the view that language is vitally metaphorical. If persons with autism are more likely to see language as already metaphorical, it would make sense that they would see little need to point out this relation in a simile with “like” or “as”, yet still use plenty of metaphor in their writings. It might also potentially explain a fascination with “standard or idiomatic figures of speech”.
Even if Roth’s research methods were sound, it is clear that there is more than one way to interpret the results. Between a neurotypical perspective on what autistic minds are like and an autistic perspective on what autistic minds are like, we should probably opt for the autistic perspective which we should have no trouble finding to be the truth. Quantitative scientific analyses of autistic poetry can only tell us so much. It would be much more fruitful to look at what autistic poets say about their work and writing process. For example, Tito Mukhopadhyay, one of the poets whose work Roth analyzed expressed the following in an interview:
“Blunt truth is “affective.” But slanted truth is “cognitive.” I expect my readers to understand the truth by linking it to something. When we relate a truth or a perception to some known field through metaphors, it becomes the stepping stone towards better cognition. Otherwise it is a childish — “I feel this and I feel that.” How many people pay heed to childishness?” (Savarese).

Undoubtedly, it is possible for autistic poets to understand metaphor, their neurological make-up may even illuminate make the relationship of language to metaphor. Perhaps it is time to stop trying to figure out people with autism, doing quantitative studies of how many similes they include in their poetry, and start listening to their words themselves.

Works Cited

Baggs, Amanda. In My Own Language.January 14, 2007.

Roth, Ilona. “Imagination and the Awareness of Self in Autistic Spectrum Poets.” Autism and Representation. Mark Osteen. Psychology Press. 2007.

Savarese, Ralph. “More Than a Thing to Ignore: An Interview with Tito Rajarshi

Written by gormanda

December 8th, 2010 at 2:41 pm

Gregory Corso’s “In Praise of Neanderthal Man”

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This is the poem of which the Flying Words Project video is meant to be a loose translation. Scroll down to pg. 194 on Google Books to read it!

Written by Helen

November 5th, 2010 at 1:26 pm

Research & Terminology – Connotations, Implications, and Progress

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Mitchell and Snyder’s “Cultural Locations of Disability” raises many relevant points about the absence of disability rights/perspectives within the scientific and research fields. Mitchell and Snyder claim that “these professions [therapy, medical school, public health, etc.] have always imagined their commitment to disabled people as their primary value, and hearing that disabled people – particularly those in disability studies – do not necessarily share this sentiment often comes as a shock” (191-192) and that “disabled people have served as the relics of obscene curiosity disguised beneath the neutral veil of empirical inquiry” (193).

The latter claim, especially, made me reconsider the research terminology that I have learned/am learning in my psychological statistics and research methods courses. During my first week of statistics last semester, we discussed the “normal” distribution of scores around the mean score (“average” score) and other terms such as “standard deviation.” Until reading theory articles for dis/lit, the inherent connotations of these words were not evident to me, let alone their moral/ethical implications.

A normal distribution is a graphic representation of scores***. It looks an arch, with the peak representing a majority of the scores (this is the mean or average score.) The distribution is divided by standard deviations, which represent how far away a standardized score is from the mean. The implication of a “normal” distribution is that anything that falls too far from the mean (more than, say, two standard deviations) is abnormal. When conducting research and/or a statistical analysis, a scientist is only concerned with “statistically significant” scores that fall several standard deviations away from the mean; this statistical significance implies that the score and its subject are not part of the distribution, are abnormal, and are deviant.

“Standard deviation” is another troublesome term. The literal meaning regards a person’s score on a test and its position relevant to the average (mean) score. The connotation, as with “normal distribution,” implies unnatural, abnormal, or even socio-culturally unacceptable behavior or characteristics. To be deviant, in common speech, is a rather undesirable and stigmatized thing.

What, then, can we do? Before I offer a potential solution, I must highlight a few ways in which science and research, particularly psychology – or, at least, psychology at this university – is readjusting negative habits, traditions, and mindsets. When studying abnormal psychology (we’ll deal with this terminology later), my class discussed several progressive trends in the field. For example, a good deal of time was spent analyzing the now unethical treatment of patients in the past; discussing the stigma that surrounds psychological practitioners, scholars, and patients; and even the implication of the word “patient.” Some psychologists are now adopting the term “client” instead of “patient” to give more connotative power to the client-practitioner relationship. Equally as encouraging, if not a bit unrelated to my current topic, is the emerging field of cross-cultural psychology, which seeks to analyze the ways in which psychological practices in different cultures focus on, research, and handle issues in completely different ways.

Additionally, I think that research cannot be entirely dismissed, discredited, or disgraced. While research is inevitably biased and teeming with demeaning and dis-empowering terminology, it can be used to discover very beneficial information, therapies, as well as fuel for further theoretical debate.

Encouraging though it may be, the progress being made in the field of psychology leaves much to be desired. Even though reform is taking place among some academics, psychology and its related terminology still carry quite a large stigma in the United States. More work needs to be done to rethink and renew terminology, particularly research terminology such as “standard deviation” and “normal distribution,” to make research a more humane and less dis-empowering practice.

***Apologies, but I could not find an appropriate open-source image of a normal distribution to post with this topic. Google it Enjoy these photographs of the hummingbird that I rescued!***

Written by Robert

September 2nd, 2010 at 10:16 am

more r-word

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Here’s a link  to another short piece on the r-word, from a blogger, being sent around disability listservs today.  Also, did anybody see the Team N-Word vs Team R-Word segment on The Daily Show, I think the night before last?

Written by cfoss

August 26th, 2010 at 10:22 am


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Simi Linton’s “Reassigning Meaning” includes a section on Nasty Words such as retard (16).  The r-word has been in the news a lot recently, from the protests surrounding Tropic Thunder to the controversy over Rahm Emanuel’s remark.  Jennifer Aniston is one of the latest to utter it.  Here’s a link to a column about this issue, which the American Association of People with Disabilities sent around.  What do you all think?

Written by cfoss

August 24th, 2010 at 8:17 pm