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One of the greatest challenges to communicating with people with autism is our preconceived notions and stereotypes about autism. This is the issue at hand in Communication Issues in Autism and Asperger Syndrome: Do we speak the same language? by Olga Bogdashina. In her new book, Bogdashina argues that we should adjust our communicative styles with people with autism to meet them halfway. Using arguments from cognitive science, developmental psychology and linguistics, she illustrates the ways in which autistic development can be different from non-autistic development. Suggesting that their language(s) may be fundamentally different from ours, the key to communication is in understanding their modes of communication. In addition to theoretical arguments, her book is enriched by first-person accounts of events and anecdotes from individuals with autism. By hearing their perspectives, we are made aware of how easily and often their behaviors are misinterpreted. Consequently, instances of so-called 'misbehaving' are reinterpreted as reactions to sensory overload or anxiety. From this we gain both a deeper understanding and the information necessary to reconsider and plan our interactions and expectations.
In the three parts of her book, Bogdashina identifies theories of language and language acquisition, the characteristics of language learning styles in autism, and proposed strategies to enhance communication. Her book provides information and valuable suggestions for educators and parents in accessible language. She also fills the book with excellent illustrations of the linguistic and communicative disparity through first hand elucidations by people with autism. Bogdashina's argument is reasonable and backed with theoretical and experiential arguments for the case that we should attempt to learn their language(s) so that we can meet them on common ground. At times, however, her arguments could be strengthened by the development of and a commitment to a singular theory of language.
In the first section, Bogdashina introduces different theories of language and cognitive growth, describing the advantages and disadvantages of each of them. Given the variety of ways in which sensory information is processed, it is reasonable to assume, she argues, that language and thinking are structurally different in people with autism (and not even universal within the autistic community). In the second section, she elaborates on the concept of different learning styles for people with autism. She also 'translates' different typically autistic linguistic behaviors (like echolalic language and literalness) into functional and non-functional linguistic practices with real antecedents and -sometimes- intentionality. In this way, she makes some seemingly meaningless behaviors meaningful and explains them in terms of their sources and intended outcomes. This humanizes these behaviors by illustrating their functionality to these individuals, and challenging their apparent randomness. In the third section, she examines strategies to enhance communication in autism, and offers both support and critique for various methods including Applied Behavioral Therapy, Floor-time, PECs (picture exchange communication), Social Stories and so forth. Here she describes how the effectiveness of different therapies will often be determined by the child's sensory profile, thus arguing that sensory profiles are a necessary precursor to any therapeutic or learning program. This reinforces her arguments from parts one and two of the book.
Bogdashina makes strong arguments advocating a reconceptualization of our expectations of people with autism and their abilities. Moreover, she illustrates and critiques several stereotypes about the strengths and weaknesses of people with autism (for example, the ubiquity of savants or visual thinkers, neither of which is accurate). This is where the impact of first-hand accounts really becomes apparent. Rather than giving a voice to people with autism, Bogdashina lets them speak for themselves. This is both powerful and empowering, as it forces us to confront our limited understanding of autism and prevents us from superimposing our beliefs and expectations on the members of their community. The very notion of an autistic community (rather than the unfortunate victims of a disability) challenges our understanding of autism.
Bogdashina's book does make an important contribution to the literature; however, her argument for a separate language is hampered by an underdeveloped theory of language. She provides clear and useful summaries of the different theories of language, including nativist, social pragmatic and behaviorist perspectives. She also illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of each theory, suggesting that none of them is adequate. Bogdashina does not suggest an alternative theory of language and language acquisition, and this weakens her overall thesis -- that people with autism speak a fundamentally different language than ours. Given the absence of a theory of language, it is not clear how autistic language is different from non-autistic language. Moreover, if language is different among members of the autistic community (different from us and even different from each other), then we are compelled to accept that either language is different between members of the 'typically developing' community, or that we all input and process sensory information in the exact same way. Consequently, a formal theory of language would be needed to fully explore her argument and what implications follow from it.
Bogdashina challenges our understanding of autism and what the autistic community needs from us. Rather than insisting that they meet us on our terms, she asserts that we should be ready to respect and meet theirs. No longer relying solely on our interpretations of their needs, this notion is reinforced by their own requests. This is certainly the strength of Bogdashina's book, which is hindered by an underdeveloped theory of language as a whole. Perhaps that made her book too ambitious (for a theory of language may be a book on its own), but it is worth dealing with that obstacle for the sake of the benefits of gaining a better understanding of autism, and the beliefs and desires of people with autism. Clearly written in approachable language, Bogdashina's book is certainly suitable for parents, educators and students, while still being penetrating enough for an academic audience as well.
© 2007Shereen Hassanein
Shereen Hassanein is currently finishing her PhD in philosophy at York University in Toronto in philosophy of mind and philosophy of language. She is also currently doing research in language acquisition and autism research at the Milton and Ethel Harris Research Initiative.