10 months ago



William 87 detail. At

William 87 detail. At least that is how it is experienced by the person on the outside of that private meaning. I remember William once going through a period of calling all men who visited the house “Mr. Pipes.” His mother told me that once he saw an anatomical drawing of the inside of a person with the trachea and lungs highlighted. Since seeing that picture he called all men “Mr. Pipes.” “Oh,” I said, “it’s like they are made of pipes as in the picture.” “No,” he said, “they are Mr. Pipes.” In other words there was no appreciation that the picture was a metaphor—that people might look like they have pipes inside them but these were drawings used to represent lungs. To William, people had pipes, people were pipes, pure and simple. * * * Metaphor creates new meaning by allowing us to experience and understand one thing in terms of another. New meaning is conveyed by an unfamiliar combination of familiar words. As a result, metaphors also play a fundamental role in our understanding of the world by structuring language, thought, feelings, and actions and making possible an understanding of complexity, subtlety, and nuance. But children with autism and AS live without metaphors, not only in their language but in their understanding of the world. Living without metaphors is a common theme that runs through many of the cognitive models we’ve been exploring to explain the symptoms and behaviors of children and adults with ASD—theory of mind, executive function deficits, and weak central coherence (though perhaps not the concept of difficulty in disengaging visual attention). Living without metaphors means there is no distinction between the literal and the figurative; all is literal meaning. Holding two meanings in place at the same time is just not possible. One thing is not understood in terms of another; it is just understood as it is. A facial expression does not imply an emotion, a figure does not imply a ground, a solution that does not work does not imply that one must look for another. Living without metaphors may be sufficient for many things in life—going to school, turning on the TV, or going shopping—the instrumental demands of daily life. But it is insufficient for the more complex demands of learning, for navigating the ambiguity of social interactions, for self-reflection, and for generating novel ways to solve

88 A MIND APART problems. Metaphors play a crucial role in each of these important activities. Teachers rely on models all the time to explain things in school; the solar system is more than a simple mobile strung together with wires, as one child with autism once explained to me in wonder. We also think of our social interactions in terms of metaphor. When a mother said that somebody “got out of the wrong side of bed this morning!” another child with AS asked whether he had hurt himself. We often use metaphors to creatively solve problems, but a phrase such as “life by the inch is a cinch, life by the yard is hard” was of no help whatsoever in helping a teenager with AS prepare for tests at school by studying a little bit each night. Without recourse to these metaphors, experience cannot by synthesized, integrated, and made meaningful except in the particulars. To live without metaphor is to live in the particular, without the capacity to generalize experience and to anticipate solutions to new problems, to realize that what is hidden (be it an emotion, a context, or a general, abstract rule) gives meaning to what is present, makes sense of the stream of perception. Without the capacity for metaphor in a more general sense, people with ASD rely on black-and-white rules to govern behavior, and routine and insistence on sameness to structure their world. Living in the particular has its own rewards to be sure, but it does come at a cost. The poet Wallace Stevens wrote that reality is a cliché from which we escape by metaphor. Perhaps this is because a metaphor carries a surplus of meaning—that is, both a literal and a figurative meaning. The figurative meaning emerges from an implicit understanding of context by both speaker and listener. Meaning for typical children arises from a mutual, almost implicit and preconscious understanding of the social world that encompasses both speaker and listener. What happens in ASD is that the literal meaning by itself, so often divorced from the context, looks nonsensical to the outsider. To refer to Uncle Bob as “Mr. Pipes” makes no sense unless the listener can infer a context on behalf of the child. The figurative meaning in this case emerges from the context of the child’s interests and his preoccupations (that is, plumbing). But without knowledge of the special interest, the phrase spoken by the child with ASD is often meaningless. The key to helping children with ASD is that as listeners we have to infer the context: We have to say what is unsaid; we have to supply the surplus meaning on behalf of the child. We have to drag it out into the light of day. To accomplish this, we have to put ourselves in the child’s

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