Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Processing in Parts

If you haven't read Zilari's blog (partprocessing.blogspot.com) you are missing out. Unfortunately, her blog has been paused, so all you can read is the archives, but the archives are great. Zilari explains what is going on with her in way that is easy to grasp and empathize with. In particular, her February entry gave me a new window into why we say the things we do.

I remember being asked what I'd done in school as a child, and literally not having any of the words to describe what happened, even if I could picture what had happened. When an answer was demanded, I would resort to "stock phrases" and memorized scripts, some of which I knew were not accurate.


I remember actually telling people, echolalically, "I am acting this way because I am bored, because I am too smart for this classroom material", or, "I cannot control my behavior because I was molested". My saying these things did not mean I actually thought them, or that they were true -- rather, they were simply the only words I had at the time. Not responding was not an option...when asked, "Why do you act this way?", the most truthful answer -- "I don't know" -- was never acceptable.

I began to see conversations of that sort as a kind of puzzle or a trap from which I had to escape; the communicative aspects of those conversations were lost on me completely. I knew that someone was putting words in front of me, and that until I gave back the right words in response, I would not be allowed to leave or exit the conversation.
You don't have to be on the spectrum to experience conversation in this way to some extent. According to tests, I'm as far off the spectrum as they get, and yet it's not uncommon for me to say things simply because I imagine that is what is expected of me, or because I cannot think of anything else to say. And this is not by any means a fully conscious process. We don't make decisions about everything we say. A good part of it just comes out. It is not even uncommon for people to "discover" that they believe a certain thing or feel a certain way only when the given sentiment pops inexplicably out of their mouth. Likewise people get caught up in the most complex lies simply in order to protect a minor untruth that appeared unplanned in the middle of a conversation.

It makes sense, then, that this problem could be far more common and more difficult to deal with if you have trouble with auditory processing and generating speech on demand. Our guy does this sort of thing all the time. He will say something that is completely untrue or even unrelated to the idea that he is trying to communicate. Sometimes it's obvious. The other day an SLP asked him if our cat slept with him and he replied 'yes' (untrue) and then further agreed that the cat was nice a warm and soft in bed (our guy has never so much as touched the cat, because he has no interest in it at all). But it would have been much harder to explain that than to agree with the SLP. Sometimes it is more complex and he will actually say something that he doesn't intend and then be frustrated when people act on what he said, rather than what he intended. At which point he will generally shout, "I just said it by accident! Everyone makes mistakes, you know!" And he's quite right.

I've always realized that, while frustrating for everyone involved, these slips of the tongue are not done on purpose and so are not, for me, a big deal. But in reading the rest of Zilari's blog entry, I can see how these might cause all kinds of grief in an ordinary social setting such as a school, where the interlocutor has no other information to go on and takes everything that is said at face value. And the annoying thing is that I cannot think of any strategy to avoid or lessen the problems that this could bring in school. If anyone has a strategy, I'd love to hear it.

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