Friday, July 22, 2011

Pragmatic Speech, the Autistic Mind and Telling Your Professor He is Wrong


No, I am not purporting to speak for my children or anyone else on the autism spectrum. What I am going to do is try to explain the conundrum that CM1 found himself in yesterday in class. As I have mentioned there is still mindblindness in the boys’ societal interactions, which we work on almost daily and try to get them to realize that they need to think about the “whole situation” rather than just inward. One of the aspects of this issue is the way they understand and use speech.

I have to say that CM2 does have a better handle on how words do affect others and I would even say that when he insults, particularly his older brother, he truly means what he says and truly embraces the double entendre. I can also say that when he calls me a “bitch,” albeit it under his breath thinking I can’t hear, he really means it too. CM1 on the other hand, when he says something there is no underlying message, no hidden agenda, and no duplicitous sense of language. He says what he means and basically, he means what he says.

Here’s what happened:

The professor was discussing an issue in history and compared the actions of the United States and Israel to the Communist East Germans. Well CM1 not being deterred basically pointed out how the professor’s analogy was off (apart from the fact that my son was slightly insulted by the professor’s comparison). CM1 didn’t stop there; he then told the professor that his comparison was wrong. The para reported that at that point the professor turned beat red, especially since another student in class happened to agree with CM1.

Now, when I picked CM1 up from school, the para was trying to explain to him why what he said was wrong. Not the fact that he disagreed with the professor but the way he said what he said. CM1 was not buying it. He said that the professor was wrong, that the professor’s analogy was way off. That he told him so in a nice tone and that the professor should reevaluate his way of thinking.

I tried to explain to my son that it wasn’t what he said but how he said it that was the problem. CM1’s response was that he had a nice tone. That he didn’t yell and just talked quietly. Yes, I said that was a good thing and he did well in that way, but that words have underlying meanings and that when he told the professor that he was “wrong” he basically was telling the professor that he was stupid. Well, forget it. CM1 not only didn’t accept that reasoning he thought I was stupid.

“That is not what I said,” he insisted. “I told him that his comparison was wrong not that he was stupid.”

I tried to explain to him that words have inferential meaning and that the professor, rightly or wrongly, inferred that you were telling him he was stupid. I tried to explain to him that what he should have said instead of that the professor was wrong, was that he just disagreed with the professor’s analogy. He would have gotten his point across but in such a way as to not have the professor feel he was being insulted.

But CM1 still did not get it. He did not mean to insult the professor. As far as he was concerned it was statement of fact not a personal attack on the professor’s intelligence. I tried again; unsuccessfully to explain to him that it is not what you say but the words you use to get your point across. That, yes his tone was very good, but that words have more than one meaning and he needs to try to be more diplomatic. I modeled once again the statement for him:

After the statement how you disagree you simply add, “I respectfully disagree with your comparison.”

Nope, not getting it.  I tried to explain to him that there are ways to tell people that they are wrong without telling them they are wrong. It is the subtlety of language that is important and that the direct approach is not always the best approach. I tired to explain it with a Sheldon analogy…

Yes, I do use The Big Bang Theory as a teaching tool. In one of the original episodes, Sheldon was fired when he told his new boss that he was a bad scientist. Well CM1 didn’t accept this analogy either because Sheldon told his boss directly that he was a bad scientist. He never told the professor he was a bad teacher or professor or that he was stupid or anything like that.

CM1 simply could not wrap his brain around the fact that people would imply something more in language than the basic understanding of the words. Since CM1 does not have an underlying agenda and would not insult anyone other than his little brother he doesn’t understand why anyone would take what he said in a mean way. Again, that mindblindness issue rears its ugly head. CM1 cannot see beyond his own reality and since he was simply stating a fact he cannot understand why others would be insulted since he meant nothing bad. I have to say that CM1 did actually congratulate his brother for how hard he is trying in his college class. Of course CM1 put it, that he was pleasantly surprised with CM2. Again, not the best way to phrase a pat on the back, but at least it was very heartfelt.

At that point, since nothing I said was getting through to him, I told CM1 that his father would talk to him about it. He wasn’t in trouble but it is a skill he needs to understand. So when the Wise Old Sage came home from work I set him to talking to CM1 about how to use diplomatic language when you are telling someone they are stupid, so they don’t know that you are telling them they are stupid. Diplomacy is truly the art of getting along in the world in which we live. Later, I found the men of my family discussing this issue in the basement and having a rather informative talk on the subject as a matter of fact.

The truth is that I do not know if CM1 gets the pragmatic in any way shape or form especially since CM1 hasn’t a mean or disrespectful bone in his body. I think the professor really knows that, because this professor is known for kicking people out of his class or humiliating them if they deserve it (like when they come late to class or take out a phone to start texting during a lecture). He is very old-fashioned and demands respect and appropriate behavior in his classroom. Really not a bad thing when you think about it. Part of life is understanding how to interact with people on every level no matter who they are and no matter who you are. There are also rules of etiquette and appropriateness that everyone needs to learn, NT and autistic alike.

Meanwhile, the professor neither humiliated CM1 nor threw him out of class. He let it basically slide and figured the para would take care of it later, which he tried to do, which I tired to do, which WoS tried to do. Of course this also wasn’t the first time that CM1 was in one of the professor’s classes and the professor has seen CM1 grow and develop and has even commended CM1 for how much he has progressed.  So a part of me thinks that once the professor stepped back, he realized that CM1 really didn’t mean anything afterall. Even if that step back was quickly done and took only a few seconds of realization.

But all in all, CM1 does keep his professors on their toes. I have always said that if the college survives my children the college can survive anything. The interesting thing is that the lessons the college personnel are learning from the boys at times are much more important than what the boys learn from the college. While society may talk a big game about inclusion and respecting others, it is another thing to come face to face with the reality of someone’s differences. Oh it is easy to talk about respecting someone else’s religion, race, ethnicity or gender, these are things you see and can associate with, but it is another thing entirely when you have to respect someone else’s neurological difference that challenges a social structure. Invisible disabilities are the last bastion of societal acceptance, I have no doubt. In fact these particular disabilities propose one of the greater challenges to a college. They even challenge the power structure of a classroom. As I mentioned when CM1 started college, that the hallowed halls of ivy are never going to be the same again once they meet my boys. We are going to see just how those who espouse inclusion fare when they are personally confronted with its reality. But you know, at this particular college, so far so good…

Until next time,
Elise