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Tag Archives: Autism

The Woman Who Thinks Like a Cow

In addendum to the thoughts begun below, here is a film portion on Temple Grandin, and a selection from her Thinking In Pictures:

I THINK IN PICTURES. Words are like a second language to me. I translate both spoken and written words into full-color movies, complete with sound, which run like a VCR tape in my head. When somebody speaks to me, his words are instantly translated into pictures. Language-based thinkers often find this phenomenon difficult to understand, but in my job as an equipment designer for the livestock industry, visual thinking is a tremendous advantage.

Visual thinking has enabled me to build entire systems in my imagination. During my career I have designed all kinds of equipment, ranging from corrals for handling cattle on ranches to systems for handling cattle and hogs during veterinary procedures and slaughter. I have worked for many major livestock companies. In fact, one third of the cattle and hogs in the United States are handled in equipment I have designed. Some of the people I’ve worked for don’t even know that their systems were designed by someone with autism. I value my ability to think visually, and I would never want to lose it.

One of the most profound mysteries of autism has been the remarkable ability of most autistic people to excel at visual spatial skills while performing so poorly at verbal skills. When I was a child and a teenager, I thought everybody thought in pictures. I had no idea that my thought processes were different. In fact, I did not realize the full extent of the differences until very recently. At meetings and at work I started asking other people detailed questions about how they accessed information from their memories. From their answers I learned that my visualization skills far exceeded those of most other people…

…I create new images all the time by taking many little parts of images I have in the video library in my imagination and piecing them together. I have video memories of every item I’ve ever worked with — steel gates, fences, latches, concrete walls, and so forth. To create new designs, I retrieve bits and pieces from my memory and combine them into a new whole. My design ability keeps improving as I add more visual images to my library. I add video-like images from either actual experiences or translations of written information into pictures. I can visualize the operation of such things as squeeze chutes, truck loading ramps, and all different types of livestock equipment. The more I actually work with cattle and operate equipment, the stronger my visual memories become….

…Being autistic, I don’t naturally assimilate information that most people take for granted. Instead, I store information in my head as if it were on a CD-ROM disc. When I recall something I have learned, I replay the video in my imagination. The videos in my memory are always specific; for example, I remember handling cattle at the veterinary chute at Producer’s Feedlot or McElhaney Cattle Company. I remember exactly how the animals behaved in that specific situation and how the chutes and other equipment were built. The exact construction of steel fenceposts and pipe rails in each case is also part of my visual memory. I can run these images over and over and study them to solve design problems.

If I let my mind wander, the video jumps in a kind of free association from fence construction to a particular welding shop where I’ve seen posts being cut and Old John, the welder, making gates. If I continue thinking about Old John welding a gate, the video image changes to a series of short scenes of building gates on several projects I’ve worked on. Each video memory triggers another in this associative fashion, and my daydreams may wander far from the design problem. The next image may be of having a good time listening to John and the construction crew tell war stories, such as the time the backhoe dug into a nest of rattlesnakes and the machine was abandoned for two weeks because everybody was afraid to go near it…

…For example, many people see a generalized generic church rather than specific churches and steeples when they read or hear the word “steeple.” Their thought patterns move from a general concept to specific examples. I used to become very frustrated when a verbal thinker could not understand something I was trying to express because he or she couldn’t see the picture that was crystal clear to me. Further, my mind constantly revises general concepts as I add new information to my memory library. It’s like getting a new version of software for the computer. My mind readily accepts the new “software,” though I have observed that some people often do not readily accept new information.

Unlike those of most people, my thoughts move from video like, specific images to generalization and concepts. For example, my concept of dogs is inextricably linked to every dog I’ve ever known. It’s as if I have a card catalog of dogs I have seen, complete with pictures, which continually grows as I add more examples to my video library. If I think about Great Danes, the first memory that pops into my head is Dansk, the Great Dane owned by the headmaster at my high school. The next Great Dane I visualize is Helga, who was Dansk’s replacement. The next is my aunt’s dog in Arizona, and my final image comes from an advertisement for Fitwell seat covers that featured that kind of dog. My memories usually appear in my imagination in strict chronological order, and the images I visualize are always specific. There is no generic, generalized Great Dane…

…Autistics have problems learning things that cannot be thought about in pictures. The easiest words for an autistic child to learn are nouns, because they directly relate to pictures. Highly verbal autistic children like I was can sometimes learn how to read with phonics. Written words were too abstract for me to remember, but I could laboriously remember the approximately fifty phonetic sounds and a few rules. Lower-functioning children often learn better by association, with the aid of word labels attached to objects in their environment. Some very impaired autistic children learn more easily if words are spelled out with plastic letters they can feel.

Spatial words such as “over” and “under” had no meaning for me until I had a visual image to fix them in my memory. Even now, when I hear the word “under” by itself, I automatically picture myself getting under the cafeteria tables at school during an air-raid drill, a common occurrence on the East Coast during the early fifties. The first memory that any single word triggers is almost always a childhood memory. I can remember the teacher telling us to be quiet and walking single-file into the cafeteria, where six or eight children huddled under each table. If I continue on the same train of thought, more and more associative memories of elementary school emerge. I can remember the teacher scolding me after I hit Alfred for putting dirt on my shoe. All of these memories play like videotapes in the VCR in my imagination. If I allow my mind to keep associating, it will wander a million miles away from the word “under,” to submarines under the Antarctic and the Beatles song “Yellow Submarine.” If I let my mind pause on the picture of the yellow submarine, I then hear the song. As I start humming the song and get to the part about people coming on board, my association switches to the gangway of a ship I saw in Australia.

I also visualize verbs. The word “jumping” triggers a memory of jumping hurdles at the mock Olympics held at my elementary school. Adverbs often trigger inappropriate images — “quickly” reminds me of Nestle’s Quik — unless they are paired with a verb, which modifies my visual image. For example, “he ran quickly” triggers an animated image of Dick from the first-grade reading book running fast, and “he walked slowly” slows the image down. As a child, I left out words such as “is,” “the,” and “it,” because they had no meaning by themselves. Similarly, words like “of,” and “an” made no sense. Eventually I learned how to use them properly, because my parents always spoke correct English and I mimicked their speech patterns. To this day certain verb conjugations, such as “to be,” are absolutely meaningless to me.

When I read, I translate written words into color movies or I simply store a photo of the written page to be read later. When I retrieve the material, I see a photocopy of the page in my imagination. I can then read it like a Teleprompter. It is likely that Raymond, the autistic savant depicted in the movie Rain Man, used a similar strategy to memorize telephone books, maps, and other information. He simply photocopied each page of the phone book into his memory. When he wanted to find a certain number, he just scanned pages of the phone book that were in his mind. To pull information out of my memory, I have to replay the video. Pulling facts up quickly is sometimes difficult, because I have to play bits of different videos until I find the right tape. This takes time.

When I am unable to convert text to pictures, it is usually because the text has no concrete meaning. Some philosophy books and articles about the cattle futures market are simply incomprehensible. It is much easier for me to understand written text that describes something that can be easily translated into pictures. The following sentence from a story in the February 21, 1994, issue of Time magazine, describing the Winter Olympics figure-skating championships, is a good example: “All the elements are in place — the spotlights, the swelling waltzes and jazz tunes, the sequined sprites taking to the air.” In my imagination I see the skating rink and skaters. However, if I ponder too long on the word “elements,” I will make the inappropriate association of a periodic table on the wall of my high school chemistry classroom. Pausing on the word “sprite” triggers an image of a Sprite can in my refrigerator instead of a pretty young skater.

Taking up Wittgenstein’s notion of Rule Following, and its correction from below, nothing of our linguistic observerance, our interacting with Temple Grandin need serve as the corrective to her rule-followings. She merely can imagine her pens and runs, build them, and look at them working or not, without any aid from public normal language. Our seeing them work or not, is not a matter of her “potentially private thought (language)” becoming “public”, but simply a matter of our own pattern recognitions, that is “private” in the sense of subjectivity, judging her behaviours. None of this gives us a public knowledge or translation of her subjective language.

(A non-linguistic person, in the standard sense, could mutely just build these things, and we could see if they work nor not, and this “seeing” would not be a “translation” of a language”. The rule-following that such a person experiences, the moment to moment yes/no of decision, would not be “known” in any public sense, even though we could discuss the results.)

An autistic might very well design things that can never, and will never be built or discussed about, but still have “knowledge” of these things, subjectively, in that the “rule-following” that governs them is part of a larger over-riding conception of how things work. In the end Wittgenstein distinction between seeming to and actually follow rules, does not appear to exist in these. It is exactly for this reason that Amanda’s conversations with water need no “public” confirmation, to be “actual” rule-following.

To put it another way, the problem, the core problem, is that checking one’s impression of folllowing a rule is not at all like buying several copies of the same newspaper; (how clever Wittgenstein is at saying things that seem utterly profound, but lack application, back to the rough ground). It lacks the temporal and consequential aspect. There indeed is a difference between thinking one is following a rule, and realizing that one was not (in the past). But when you currently make your assessment of past rule-followings, you still have no ground yet to know if you are currently following a rule properly, or only imagining that you are. Only subsequent looking-backs and recontextualizations will tell you. The applications of rules does not contain a logical difference between the two states, that is, one that can be settled. Instead one simply revises rules, or the impression that one was following them, as one goes. Temple Grandin is not merely buying copies of the same paper when she constructs mental models of things she would like to build. She has no need of a lingustic being telling her that she followed them or not, whether she made a mistake, and only apparently followed rules. There is nothing public about her process of revisement (which is not to say that the products of her rule following cannot be discussed or that beliefs cannot be formed about it). It means that the very fine point of whether one is following a rule, or only seeming to, has no ultimate external referent. The difference between “correct” and “incorrect” is internal to Temple Grandin’s process. There is no rule for how to follow a rule.




Amanda’s “Private Language”

Pace Wittgenstein?


Wittgenstein argued, in a rather slick and convincing way, that there is no such thing as a “Private Language”, a language that in principle cannot be learned by anyone else. He argued that logically the kinds of internal, untranslatable rule followings that anyone might do privately, can only be at most the impression of following rules, and only become, or are called language, when we are able to translate them, setting out the difference between merely thinking you are following a rule, and actually following a rule. When we are able to say, yes that is following a rule, it is then that we grant language status.

Some selections from his Philosophical Investigations which are relevant:

If the distinction between ‘correct’ and ‘seems correct’ has disappeared, so then as the concept of correct. It follows that the ‘rules’ of my private language are only impressions of rules (259).

My impression that I follow a rule does not confirm that I follow that I follow the rule, unless there can be something that will prove my impression correct. And the something cannot be another impression–for this would b “as if someone were to buy several copies of the morning paper to assure himself that what it said was true” (265).

The proof that I am following a rule must appeal to something independent of my impression that I am. If in the nature of the case there cannot be such an appeal, then my private language does not have rules, for the concept of a rule requires that there be a difference between he is following a rule and ‘He is under the impression that he is following a rule’.

Amanda, an autistic who painfully, to many observers, did not possess the capacity of intelligent thought, claims to have a Language of her Own, what she calls her “native language”, one that is not symbolic, and allows her to have “conversations” with water or sounds. She scolds others for having to wait for her to learn their language, before they granted her personhood. Is her Language a Language? Or is she just one more conceptually confused Cartesian? In making this video testament, is she somehow “translating” her language, and relieving it of its potential “private language” status.

This is the transcript of her written text from the film:

The previous part of this video was my native language. Many people have assumed that when talk about this being my language that means that each part of the video must have a particular symbolic message in it designed for the human mind to interpret.

But my language is not about designing words or even visual symbols for people to interpret. It is about being in a constant conversation with every aspect of my environment. Reacting physically to all part of my surroundings. In this part of the video The water doesn’t symbolize anything. I am just interacting with the water as the water interacts with me. Far from being purposeless, the way that I move is an ongoing response to what is around me. Ironically, the way that I move when responding to everything around me is described as “being in a world of my own”. Whereas if I interact with a much more limited set of responses and only react to a much more limited part of my surroundings people claim that I am “opening up to true interaction with the world”. They judge my existence, awareness and personhood on which of a tiny and limited part of the world I appear to be reacting to. The way that I naturally think and respond to things looks and feels so different from standard concepts or even visualization that some people do not consider it thought at all but it is a way of thinking in its own right.

However the thinking of people like me is only taken seriously if we learn your language, no matte how we previously thought or interacted. As you heard I can sing along with what is around me. It is only when I type something in your language that you refer to me as having communication. I smell things. I listen to things. I feel things. I taste things. I look at things. It is not enough to look and listen and taste and smell and feel, I have to do those to the right things, such as look at books and fail to do them to the wrong things or else people doubt that I am a thinking being and since their definition of thought defines their definition of personhood so ridiculously much they doubt that I am a real person as well.

I would like to honestly know how many people if you met me on the street would believe that I wrote this. I find it very interesting by the way that failure to learn your language is seen as a deficit but failure to learn my language is seen as so natural that people like me are officially described and puzzling rather than anyone admitting that it is themselves that are confused not autistic people or other cognitively disabled people who are inherently confusing. We are even viewed as non-communicative if we don’t speak the standard language but other people are not considered non-communicative if they are so oblivious to our own languages as to believe that they don’t exist. In the end I want you to know that this has not been intended as a voyeuristic freak show where you get to look at the bizarre workings of the autistic mind. It is meant as a strong statement on the existence and value of many different kinds of thinking and interaction in world where how close you can appear to a specific one of them determines whether you are seen as a real person or an adult or an intelligent person.

And in a world in which those determine whether you have any rights there are people being tortured, people dying, because they are considered non-persons because their kind of thought is so unusual as to not be considered thought at all. Only when the many shapes of personhood are recognized will justice and human rights be possible.

Amanda Baggs

Amanda’s point is that it is absurd to regard the very narrow band of relevance that which “neuro-typical” people consider “communication,” their “language” as the defining aspect of thought; she claims that she is communicating, and indeed languaging, with a much broader spectrum of differences, that those that “neuro-typical” do. In a sense, she claims to have a language of another order. She resists the idea that if she only pays attention to the “right objects” and ignores the “wrong objects” she is thinking (or languaging).

1. Prospectively,  if one accepts that in making and following the rules of “grammar and semantics” one is just forming more beliefs, more conditions of actions to be taken, then the narrowness of what one may define as a “language” is subsumed in a larger category. Temple Grandin, an autistic who has a doctorate in animal science, claims to be able to most functionally “think in pictures”. Is this “rule following”? Is it a “language” (it depends on your definition: you would like one definition, I might like another). A rule-governed process of the formation of beliefs that help one cope with the world seems to me to be a “language” despite not having all the prerequisites that one might like to impose to make it officially a language. That what would be perhaps because both symbolic/grammatical languages, and perhaps autistic picture languages fall under the same category, the dominant form masking a larger process of interpretation.

2. From a Wittgensteinian, rule-following, Private Language point of view, it Wittgenstein is motivated to deny the logical inability of others to “know” our sensations or thoughts (the notorious Problem of Other Minds), because in order to have them, we must be following rules; and the only thing that qualifies that our rule-following is not just seeming to follow rules, but actually following rules, is our rule oriented interactions with others.

But if we grant Temple Grandin her “thinking in pictures”, the homolous argument would be: when Temple Grandin designs something in her mind, using pictures, the only thing that keeps her from only seeming to design stuff in her mind, and actually designing stuff, is her interactions with others. When in fact this is absurd. What keeps her from only seeming to design stuff, and actually designing stuff, is that when she makes it, it works (with or without the language use that surrounds it). Wittgenstein’s denial of private language (and with it private knowledge of states) is based on the logical grounds of what constitutes “rule-following”. He claims that “private rule-following” has no way of accessing whether it is rule-following or not. This simply does not seem to be the case. The way that it is assessed seems to be the experience of coherence, and the outcome of preditions of future states.

In speaking of concrete example, how does Wittgenstein’s in principle concept of a Private Language fair? All “in principle” falls to analysis of real context. Amanda claims or at least implies, that if she hadn’t bothered to learn our language, she still would have had a “language”. The question would be: Is this language, having learned ours or not, in principle learnable? What would be the standard that it had been learned? She does seem to imply that it can be learned, but it is hard to understand what such a learning would consist of. The bottom line of course is that Wittgenstein’s distinction between only thinking one is following rules and actually following does not exist as a point of logic, but is only a position we take towards our own interpretations. I sense that because Wittgenstein wants so desperately to make “knowledge” public” (that is non-Cartesian) he is seduced into the factuality of this distinction: that there is a real difference between the two, rather than merely an operative and provisional one. The “subjective” experiences that Amanda would have, sans our language, are something more than what Wittenstein calls “characteristic accompaniments”. They are not adornments to “rules”, but of which they consist. And the correctives of whether she is “rule following” or not, is simply the interaction with reality.

3.Amanda’s main aim is not whether her “language” is categorized as “language”, but the way that that categorization conditions her status as a “person” (with attendant rights; and she has physically and emotionally suffered real consequential abuse from not having that status), and as a thinking being. There is an entire framework of moral, legal and cognitive assumptions that follow on with “language” status. Her point is that if she had not learned what she calls “our language” her social status, the status of her thoughts and feelings would be held at a very low level, perhaps just above animal. She is claiming (and a good Wittgenstein might like to argue with her), that if she had not ever learned this language, or more subtly, if she lived in an pre-computer age, she would still have had all these thoughts, or at least thoughts to this level. Her claim to her own “language” is really a moral claim.

And taking up this point. If history had made it such that we never knew what Amanda was “thinking”, because she just went around humming and tapping things, what is the philosophical, and therefore ethical or moral status of that “thinking”? And is there a framework that allows us to include that self-described capacity as “personhood” and “thinking” without ascribing to it “language” status. When Amanda Baggs describes herself, she rejects the idea that she is an impaired person. Yes, there are many things that she cannot do, but from her point of view, there are many things that she can do, which neuro-typical can’t (or won’t). What is the philosophical, and therefore moral status of this claim? Or is she, as matter of logic, necessarily only impaired? Do we simply extend our “citizenship” as in some modified and diluted manner to others, (not just to animals, infants or autistics, but to “blacks” and “jews” and “sunni”) or do we change how we concieve of personhood altogether?