Yesterday evening, my schedule was interrupted by being captivated by a long video about a particular autism case where the person was finally able to communicate using the spelling-to-communicate program. This program works by exercising large muscle movements and the mental capability to control those muscles just enough to point out letters and eventually spell out sentences or more. The full video is An Autism Miracle.
I have very little familiarity with Autism to directly address the content of the video point by point. However, I recognize the aspect of it being too good to be true, a severely autistic person has a very advanced intelligence and somehow learned to read and compose grammatically correct statements, if not entire paragraphs or more. Once unlocked with the ability to use a specialized keypad to spell out words, he is able to achieve a high school level education with the goal of getting a college degree. This was shown in a video interview with editing. And there is the verbal encouragement from the father for each successive set of letters were entered. They addressed the critics complaints that this was actually the father’s words and he was guiding the son to type the right letters. They acknowledged that the only way to see for sure is to see it in person, and especially watch the program’s progress with another autistic person.
Personally, I believe this is real. Again, I have no personal stake in the topic of autism, except that I have always been fascinated in the phenomenon of autism for the full spectrum but perhaps most especially the severely autistic. The fascination is in its mystery. The video poses a possible explanation in that autism may not necessarily be a cognitive disorder. Instead it is a disorder of the part of the muscular nervous system that controls fine motor movements required to move arms, hands, fingers, and even the eyes. The statement that struck me the most was the lesson to not attempt to read body language of the autistic person. There is no body language, just body movements.
With exercises and coaching, the autistic person might learn to control just enough to start pointing out letters to spell out his thoughts. That is the claim of the spell-to-communicate program and of this interview. For the sake of this post, I assume it is true, but to be completely honest I want this to be true at least for a sizable portion of the autism population.
My fascination is about the idea of an intelligence that it is unable to communicate or even to respond to the rest of the world. In various earlier posts, I illustrated my points with descriptions of what I consider to be examples of non-human intelligence extending to even the simplest of life forms or even of inanimate objects.
I imagined an intelligence locked inside of something that lacks the faculties for writing or lacks the social abilities to formalize rules of language enough to express complicated thoughts. Nonetheless, this intelligence is able to observe the world and make sense of it, not only about how the world affects them personally, but how the world works in general.
The example of the above-mentioned video is an intelligence that is able to compose a response in the language of the others speaking, but is incapable of delivering that response. If it were capable, the listeners would acknowledge that it wan intelligent response to the point that compels them to enter into a conversation or debate. The point is that the intelligence is incapable of escaping its confines. It can observe and interpret the world, but those interpretations are doomed to remain forever private to that intelligence.
There are multiple levels of frustration for such an intelligence.
The most basic level is the mere acknowledgement that the intelligence exists at all. That’s the dilemma that autism faces. The presumption is that they lack cognitive abilities at all. The primary goal of training is conditioning of behavior to be more socially tolerable. Depending on the level of autism, there may be some basic education but the default expectation is that the education potential is low compared to people without autism. Before achieving that level of education, there first must be an acknowledgement of the potential to be educated.
At the other extreme, the intelligence may observe or derive something very fundamental about the world. Also, it knows this is an innovation that could benefit others. The frustration is being unable to share this insight that it wants to share.
Normally when something isn’t working, we abandon it. In the video interview, the remarkable thing is that after 17 years, the autistic person is still eager and enthusiastic about pursuing a possible way to communicate. The program would not work if the person had long given up on communicating with other humans.
I wrote before about an analogy using a classroom example of a test. In the test, the students are interested in more than just passing. They are also interested in demonstrating to the teacher that their capabilities are at the same level as the teacher’s. This test consists of 100 true or false questions with roughly half of each answer for the entire test so that random guessing would still result in about 50 right. Everyone gets the same questions, but the order is randomized. Also the test is timed and must be turned in after 50 minutes. This particular test covers a broad range of topics that no one person is expected to know every answer.
After excluding the outlier perfect score, the highest score was 80. Everyone got at least 20 questions wrong. The outlier was a person who turned in the completed test 5 minutes after receiving it while everyone else took at least 30 minutes to complete it. This particular outlier got every question right. In this case, the teacher might assume the student must have cheated, but given the random sequence of questions, the act of looking up answers from a cheat sheet should have taken longer than 5 minutes. Would we ever recognize this as an example of high intelligence? I think there is a parallel with the above video, after 17 years locked in solitary confinement, the intelligence in that autistic person was too quick in learning once given the opportunity. That is an element for the skepticism that it could be real.
Among the remaining exam takers, two others stood out. Both of these turned in the exam when the time expired.
One of them answered every question but got every question wrong. As mentioned before, random answers should at least get 50 right. Somehow the student knew all the right answers to avoid picking them. This student may have done so deliberately to communicate his capabilities and yet independent to not care about the results of this test. It is too convenient to dismiss this as failing grade, and this student clearly doesn’t mind. Even when the teacher recognizes what the student was doing, the deliberate choosing of wrong answers would be taken as a insult, and perhaps that was also the intent. The student may fail the exam, but he has an intelligence that needs to be reckoned with.
The last anomaly was a student that only managed to answer the first 50 questions, and left the rest of them blank. However, of the 50 answered, he got every one of them correct. Given the performance of the rest of the class, he should have made errors in at least 10 questions. Instead every answer was correct. Again, it is easy to dismiss this as a failing grade. The problem here is that this superior intelligence is too slow. Such a student needs to be encouraged to leave the course so that the course may proceed quickly to cover the material for those who can at best only get 80 questions right, but at least were able to finish the test.
I modeled this test on one that I actually took as a Freshman in college. The test was notorious in the way it was constructed and its difficulty so that very rarely was anyone able to get a perfect score. Of all the tests I took in college, this one is seared in my mind. I recall the night before the test where a group of us were studying together testing each other with mock true/false questions. Late that night, we walked though campus chanting “true, false, true, true, false,” etc. This test made us insane. None of us did all that well on it.
The outlier examples I described did not come from that test, or at least I wouldn’t know because I wasn’t a grader. Instead they were examples of how real intelligence can allude us. We do not acknowledge an intelligence that is too fast or too slow, and we don’t acknowledge one that is not cooperative. Instead we acknowledge intelligence that is at the high end of normal intelligence: those who take at least 30 minutes to finish the test and get close to 80 percent of the questions right.
I repeat this example here because I see a parallel with autism. Assuming that there is a healthy intelligence trapped inside an autistic body, that intelligence may come out as being too fast, too slow, or too uncooperative. Given the full story of the person in this interview, I see elements of all three. After 17 years of profound autism, he was too fast in acquiring communication skills through the spelling boards. Meanwhile, watching the actual interview, he was too slow in formulating a simple response even if that response was well thought out. Finally, there is all that time of the prior 17 years with the episodes that may in part trying to communicate by being deliberately uncooperative.
I liked especially his request, or demand, to stop being called autistic. The more appropriate term was a non-speaker. An intelligence that can not speak.