A Failure to Communicate Part 3: Autism and Intelligence

When I first read Emily Titon’s satirical post “A Person With Autism Manages To Do Something” I was drawn back to a post I wrote a while ago about Autism and relationships. While Emily’s post is satirical it is effective at pointing the general attitudes people have towards Joe Autie and the wonderful thing he did the one what I noticed the most was the surprise that Emily Expert had at Joe Auties ability to do something wonderful. I imagine if Joe Autie had been quoted in this satirical article his response to all the amazement would have been “Well duh! I have known I can do that my whole life.”
This got me thinking about how we perceive intelligence. So I posted a question on my Facebook to get an answer:

“I have often wondered why people associate interaction skills with any other skills or with intelligence? Autistics struggle with their interaction skills but that does not mean we are incapable of doing anything else. To assume otherwise is incorrect. We can be team players or a part of a group. We don’t interact because we don’t want to we don’t do it often because we struggle with it. Often people only have perceptions of what they see and hear to make assessments of what others are capable of based upon those factors. I was hoping a person who doesn’t have Autism could respond to this.”

Three of my friends answered. The first to answer was Matthew Gilbert. Gilbert is an adjunct professor of business at National University. Strayer University, and UCLA extension. His son is autistic.

“I think because it is hard to grasp someone’s intelligence until he/she communicates or applies it — otherwise it is really impossible to understand. Like the difference between potential energy vs. kinetic energy perhaps? My son, who is on the spectrum, is very intelligent but until he could talk (after lots of ABA) it was really hard to “see” that. Now, he is very sociable and uses wordplay to engage people as well as his love of bad jokes and math.”

I responded simply:  Seeing is believing then?

Gilbert responded:

“Then again, think about celebrated artists from hundreds of years ago who we can’t interact with (or there are no audio or video recordings of them). We make assumptions about their intelligence and abilities by their art, which I suppose is still communication (literally, as you wrote, seeing).”

What Gilbert said had a hollow ring of truth to it. Intelligence is not just a number or a score. It can’t be measured accurately in an exam. People cannot be quantified by numbers. Society in general makes assumptions about a person’s intelligence all the time. As Gilbert said what about those long dead composers where our only way to assess their intelligence is to listen to their music? Too much emphasis is placed on how a person sounds or the phrasing that they use. Their is a distinct difference between a person’s written and spoken vocabulary. As Louis Pugliese a lecturer in Educational Psychology at California, State University told VideoJug.com, “There are many ways to be smart and there are multiple intelligences.”

See link for Pugliese’s complete interview.  http://www.videojug.com/interview/types-of-intelligence-2

Still the idea of the societal value we place on good communication skills is problematic to me even though there are several types of intelligences and not just one general intelligence. As Pugliese points out Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence is only one type of intelligence.

Autistics are often discriminated against because of the confusion that exists in society as to the difference between Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence and general intelligence.

Cecily Arambula who was the second person to answer my question on Facebook had this to say about the difference between communication skills and intelligence.

“I think society tells us that anyone diagnosed with something is different from those NOT diagnosed with something. If you can’t interact with me, you must not be able to do anything correctly. Societal ignorance.”

Arambula is right. I have noticed that many people who are diagnosed with disorders that affect their speech communication skills such as stuttering are often ostracized for being stupid or incapable. Some autistics are nonverbal in other words they cannot talk. Because of this they are assumed to be retarded. Yet put a typewriter in front ot that person they can write very effectively. Written commiunication is one part of Verbal-Linguistic Intelligence. Carly Fleischmann is perhaps one of the most well known autistics that cannot speak but can write.

The type of discrimination that Fleischmann and other autistics such as myself have faced is something that is of great concern to Pia Prenevost whose son is autistic told me via Facebook that this type of discrimination is the greatest fear she has for her son.

“He struggles with communication (he also has apraxia of speech) and is far behind in his language skills. However, I know… and can see concrete evidence… that he is wicked smart. His problem solving skills are off the chart, and he demonstrates great ability to learn… even with the significant challenges he faces in communicating and socializing. I am so very afraid that he will be judged as being not able to learn because of his obvious difference instead of his actual ability.

He is 5 and is going to kindergarten this fall and I just don’t even know how to handle the school people, to be honest. They look at the ‘label’ and make assumptions and not really get to know his abilities and unique learning style…. Anyway, I guess I will work it out but I can say in no uncertain terms I dread it.”

Prenevost has a right to be concerned.  He will be judged. It’s what people do. We just have to teach our children to ignore the naysayers and keep living their lives and to do what they love to do. By doing that he can be happy and educate the ignorant.

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A Failure to Communicate Part 2: Autism and Relationships

Having Asperger’s makes life difficult. It makes for frustration due to an inability to properly communicate your emotions which can cause problems in your relationships with other people. This is a common problem for many people with Asperger’s. If you can’t communicate your feelings how can you develop relationships with other people?

It may be difficult but finding ways to communicate are not impossible. Communication is not always direct. It can often times be sideways and ambiguous.  Miscommunication can be a problem in any relationship but with Asperger’s avoiding miscommunication can be especially tricky.

Adrienne Warber writes in her article Asperger Relationships:

 A person with Aspergers and his loved ones may find themselves in conflicts that have root in key aspects of the condition. The conflicts are often misunderstandings that stem from differences in emotional responses, communication and social skills problems, routines and obsessive behaviors. The person without Aspergers orneurotypical and the person with Aspergers may have different sets of expectations and ways of relating in a relationship. Learning about Asperger characteristics can help family members and friends better understand their loved one.

While the article is talking about romantic relationships the principle can be applied to any relationship because all relationships rely on communication skills.

As I stated in my previous blog, people with Asperger’s Syndrome struggle from mind blindness. Meaning they have difficulty interpreting people’s behaviors, emotions and body language. This can lead to the person with Asperger’s to misinterpret the other person’s response as being negative or inappropriate. Also the person with Asperger’s, because he or she has has misunderstood the other person’s motivations, may react in a way that is inappropriate or negative.

The way to solve this issue and for the social relationship be it friendly, coworking, amorous or otherwise is for all parties involved to have a clear understanding of the disorder and of the person who has it. Autism is a spectrum disorder so we all exhibit it in different ways and it is important to understand not only what the disorder is, but how it affects us on an individual basis.  According to Adrienne Warber, everyone should work together to solve communications problems that may affect any relationships.  She is right. Relationships take work to succeed, but when one of the people has autism, it may seem that only the neurotypical person is doing all the work and the person with Asperger’s may not feel anything which is simply not true. People with Asperger’s can have difficulties expressing what they are feeling or what they need.  Understanding this can help any relationship.