In My Language


In My Language is a video by Amanda Baggs, an autistic and disability rights activist. I took a look at it because I thought it might interest a woman in my Attention seminar (she works with autistic people and autism comes up often in our conversations), but I think it would be interesting for anyone to watch.

I would honestly like to know how many people, if you met me on the street, would believe 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 official described as mysterious and puzzling rather than anyone admitting that it is themselves who are confused, not autistic people or other cognitively disabled people who are inherently confusing….

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 a 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.

What strikes me most strongly is that she says she is in constant interaction with the physical world, but from her movements people assume that she is “in a world of her own.” I’m guilty of thinking this, possibly because I read the Babysitter’s Club book on the subject, but mostly because my first year psychology textbook said autism was mostly caused by deficits in social interaction ability, and yes, I’m fairly sure it also used the phrase “world of their own.” I shall have to rethink everything I know about autism. It seems like in her particular case, she might not have the same sort of filter on what elements of her perception are fit to pay attention to and interact with. Whereas if I turn on a tap I see a single object (a stream of water), I very quickly adapt to its pattern of motion, and I see myself as acting upon it (by running a toothbrush under it or whatever), she might see it as being more chaotic and variable, and understand it as something that can act back. I see certain objects as being in the foreground and some in the background, whereas she might not see any difference. Thoughts?

Via Mind Hacks


Comments 6

  1. Shashi wrote:

    I remember that Babysitters Club book. I read an article once where they somehow monitered what the eyes of various autistic people were focused on compared with what “normal” people were focused on, and the normal eyes would always move to look at other people’s eyes and faces, but the autistic people would focus on some obscure think, like a spot on a blank wall. I don’t know if I explained that properly. I’m going to search for the article.

    Posted 29 Jan 2007 at 10:37 am
  2. jason wrote:

    She does have a completely different way of interacting with her environment, and she makes an interesting observation that she’s “in constant conversation” with the things around her. Sure, it looks unconventional to us, and we can’t understand the sensations and discoveries she derives from those interactions, but she clearly has high cognitive capabilities (as evidenced by the subtitled voice-over) and should be recognized for that. Saying that she’s “off in a world of her own” is like saying that two people speaking Mandarin to each other are “off in a world of their own,” but in reality they’re just interacting with the same world as we are and articulating their response in a different way.

    While this is a perfectly valid means by which to interact with one’s physical environment — and I don’t want to be harsh here — one must consider how something like natural selection would have dealt with this, say, 20,000 years ago. Would someone who spends all that time feeling objects and singing and listening to things be able to survive in a harsh environment (e.g. defend themselves against a predator, gather their own food, etc.)? We’ll never know for sure, but my first guess would be no. This doesn’t make the existence of the person in the film any less valuable, of course; the way our society is set up, we can make sure her food/shelter/survival needs are met. If anything, we should talk with these people to try to better understand their perspective (if they can describe it in our language), so we can help them in more effective ways, however they may need/want our help.

    Posted 29 Jan 2007 at 5:09 pm
  3. The Rev wrote:

    To be in nature as an object and to be in the world as a person are very different things.

    Posted 29 Jan 2007 at 11:53 pm
  4. WCG wrote:

    This has nothing to do with the topic at hand, I just saw this and thought of you. Which isn’t as creepy as it sounds. Honest.

    Posted 31 Jan 2007 at 4:59 pm
  5. Eve wrote:


    Posted 01 Feb 2007 at 9:51 am
  6. Ballastexistenz wrote:

    Actually, stories of autistic people who do survive in pretty intense survival situations abound. I would probably be more likely to survive in a survival situation than plonked on my own into an apartment. Even living on the streets (which I fortunately only had to do three days of, during a problem with housing) made it more obvious what I needed to do and not do to survive, than sitting in an apartment does. With regard to predators, they’re a pretty obvious danger-stimulus, unlike, say, electrical outlets.

    But I actually wanted to respond to this post because of the comment about the Babysitter’s Club book. That was the first thing I heard of that mentioned autism, the second was a television show about cats. Both referred to autistic people as being in a “world of our own”. I took that in a very literal sense at the time and thus would have never suspected myself of being autistic, I assumed autistic people were hallucinating an entirely different planet with all their senses.

    Posted 03 Feb 2007 at 11:43 am