I’ve spent far too long this summer revising my seminar paper deconstructing “speak” as it appears in discussions about autism and autistic people. While I’m continually reminded of the need to publish it (especially by posts like this one at Emma’s Hope Book), I keep finding myself “stuck” in an unspoken assumption buried somewhere in the sub-sub-text of ideas like “speak,” “listen,” and “communicate.”
Today, I think I can finally start to articulate it: it’s an expectation about comprehension. It’s an expectation not only about sensory intake, but processing and output. It’s subtle, and it’s pernicious.
Here’s what I mean. Today, in my ballet class, I was watching my instructor demonstrate a tricky bit of choreography. I was really focusing; there was something about the way she was doing it that was obviously not the way I was doing it, and I was trying to pinpoint the difference so I could imitate it.
The harder I looked at her feet, though, the less I was understanding; I understood what was going on only when the center of my vision was slightly off to the side, and I was watching my instructor’s feet with my peripheral vision. I said to myself, “I can’t see things when I look right at them.”
That’s not literally/physically/structurally true. There’s nothing wrong with the center of my visual field. Light enters my eye and focuses on my retina just fine when I look directly at a thing, and the information gets transmitted through my optic nerve to my brain without any apparent trouble.
What I meant when I said to myself “I can’t see things when I look right at them” is that I find it exponentially more difficult to comprehend things when I look right at them. The eye works fine, but whatever goes on in my brain to make sense of the information finds itself significantly impeded when my eyes are focused directly on a thing. It works much better when I’m looking at the thing with my peripheral vision, as with my instructor’s feet. Once I stopped watching her directly I understood exactly what she was doing.
(In Somebody Somewhere, Donna Williams mentions that this “peripheral comprehension” is a trait many autistic people seem to share.)
This is what’s been tripping me up in the paper: the unspoken assumption of comprehension behind words like “speak,” “listen,” and “communicate.” I had gotten as far as realizing there was an unspoken assumption of communication behind “speak” and “listen,” but the crux of the problem is a step further back than that, for “communicate” implies (mutual) comprehension. This is particularly true in the case of autism discussions, where people who insist those tragic people-with-autism can’t communicate at all can talk right past people who insist that all behavior is communication (and vice versa), neither party hitting on the fact that what they’re really talking about is not a “communication” problem, but a comprehension one.
There seems to me to be a more compassionate way out of the fight in this concept, but also a significant pitfall in the form of the question of “comprehension.” How does one measure comprehension? We’ve been doing it by quality of output, which is why “active listening” (for instance) involves so damn much speaking, and why lack of (comprehended) output has led so many researchers to erroneously assume lack of comprehension on the part of autistic people. But we – autistic people particularly, but also those who are learning to comprehend us – know that mutual comprehension is, at best, a tool to measure comprehension in either one of the parties. It is not comprehension itself. And in “comprehension itself” seems to lie all the sticky danger of assuming autistic people don’t have “souls,” or are less than human, or whichever fairy story one prefers.
And I suppose I shouldn’t be quite so impatient with myself in revising this paper. Deconstruction, like water, is a universal solvent. It’ll wear away anything eventually, but “eventually” is the key word.