Why We Need to Start Treating “Autistic” As Another Language Instead of a Condition6 min read

Over the past few months, on my Facebook page, I have been really focusing on explaining autistic as a lan­guage that neu­rotyp­ical people can learn (and vice versa).

The pos­i­tive feed­back this has received has helped me to under­stand that we need a true par­a­digm shift if we are ever to get away from toxic “ther­a­pies” such as ABA.

First, let’s just take a look at what applied behavior analysis (ABA) attempts to do at its most basic level: Seek out autistic behav­iors, dis­courage them, and then replace those behav­iors with neu­rotyp­ical ones.

Here’s why this will never be effec­tive even if the ABA ther­a­pist is the kindest, most com­pas­sionate indi­vidual on the planet who has absolutely no inten­tion of being harmful or abu­sive to his/her stu­dent:

Autism is not a behav­ioral con­di­tion, It is another neu­ro­log­ical lan­guage.

Dog/But — A Spanish Language Analogy

Let’s take a look at this from a learning a new lan­guage per­spec­tive for a minute. For example, if a person who speaks English wants to learn Spanish, they enroll in a Spanish lan­guage class.

When they get there, they learn the Spanish alphabet, words, basic phrases, etc. They also learn the “whys” of the way they are expected to speak in order to have effec­tive com­mu­ni­ca­tion with native Spanish speakers.

So, con­tin­uing with this analogy, let’s say a man named Eric is enrolled in a Spanish lan­guage class. Part of his learning will include how to say dif­ferent words in Spanish, what they mean, how they are used in a sen­tence, and where to put emphasis on syl­la­bles, so the person hearing Eric speak will under­stand him and vice versa.

Now, let’s say Eric is being trained how to say the word “dog” in Spanish, but in a sim­ilar way that an autistic child is trained to speak neu­rotyp­ical. In other words, Eric’s Spanish lan­guage class isn’t the typ­ical instruc­tion we’re used to; it’s designed like ABA.

The Spanish word for dog is “perro.” Now, the Spanish word for “but”–as in “how­ever”– is also “pero,” but it’s one “r” instead of two, and the only way you can tell the dif­fer­ence between them is by a slight roll in the “r” when the word is spoken and from the con­text of the sen­tence.

This means if Eric is talking about his dog, he may say some­thing like, “I like my dog. It is a beau­tiful dog,” in Spanish. However, if Eric isn’t taught con­text, meaning, and pro­nun­ci­a­tion in his Spanish lan­guage class, when he tries to say this sen­tence in Spanish, it could come out, “I like my but. It’s a beau­tiful but,” in Spanish.

Everyone around him may have a good laugh, but Eric won’t have the first clue what’s going on unless he is told.

(Now, the Spanish word for butt, as in rear end, is nalgas. Or, at least that’s the polite term. There are others. I fig­ured you might want to know that to avoid fur­ther con­fu­sion.)

Anyway, if Eric is told he cannot use the word “dog,” and he must use “perro,” but he is not given any spelling, con­text, sen­tence use, or any­thing else and just told to use that word, he’s going to get it wrong, and he’ll have no under­standing of why people are reacting to him the way they are when he goes out into the world and tries to use the word in a sen­tence.

If Language Classes Were Designed Like ABA

If an autistic child is in ABA training, that child is going to learn to do and not do cer­tain things, say and not say cer­tain things, but since they aren’t told the meaning and rea­soning behind what they are doing/not doing and saying/not saying, they will be just like Eric trying to say “dog” in Spanish (if his Spanish lan­guage class was designed like ABA).

Sometimes, Eric will get it right. He’ll point to a canine and say “perro,” and it will be cor­rect.

Other times, he’ll men­tion a dog that isn’t in the room and say he loves it, and it’s going to sound like he’s saying he loves his butt, because even though he was told the word itself, he was not given the cor­rect spelling or con­text of the word or even told that there is another word in Spanish that sounds just like the one he is using for dog– only it means some­thing com­pletely dif­ferent.

If his Spanish lan­guage class was designed like ABA, he would only be ver­bally told that “dog” is wrong and “perro” is right, and that’s what he is expected to say from now on.

That’s not enough infor­ma­tion. Simply pointing to some­thing and saying the word in the pre­ferred lan­guage doesn’t create under­standing.

Furthermore, having someone say the word or phrase because they are mim­ic­king you in order to avoid pun­ish­ment doesn’t indi­cate under­standing, either. It only indi­cates that they don’t want to be pun­ished.

A parrot can mimic. It doesn’t mean that if you had one, and its pre­vious owner taught it to swear that when it swears at you, it’s sud­denly taken a dis­like to you or trying to be rude.

The parrot is just repeating what it was taught!

And, if you were an abu­sive person, and you smacked the parrot across the beak for “swearing at you,” it would have no idea why you just did some­thing like that in response to it speaking, when you would usu­ally reward it and give it treats when it did the exact same thing before.

We’re Not Parrots, We’re Not Dogs, We’re People Speaking Another Language

Now, just for clar­i­fi­ca­tion. I’m not saying that autistic people are par­rots, dogs, or any other animal. Unfortunately, though, this is how we are being treated and trained by ABA.

This is why ABA is so inef­fec­tive even at its very core. Even if you take the abuse out of it for a second, the premise can’t work because all it’s doing is teaching a native autistic speaker to speak neu­rotyp­ical, but without any other clues or con­text other than, “Say or do this, or you will be pun­ished, or you won’t get a reward.”

That is not teaching, that is training. What needs to happen is teaching, and that goes for not just neu­ro­di­ver­gent people, but neu­rotyp­ical people, too.

The Ideal Classes for Autistic and Neurotypical People

If it were up to me, I would create classes for both autistic and neu­rotyp­ical people. They would be like any other second lan­guage class. Autistic people would learn neu­rotyp­ical, and neu­rotyp­ical people would learn autistic.

Autistic classes would explain neu­rotyp­ical emo­tions, facial expres­sions, tones of voice, responses, and all of the meaning and nuance behind these things. Neurotypical classes would explain neu­ro­di­ver­gent emo­tions, facial expres­sions, tones of voice, responses, and all of the meaning and nuance behind these things.

Once these foun­da­tions were put into place, then, and only then, would both neu­rotypes be able to sit down with a teacher of the oppo­site neu­rotype to learn how to com­pro­mise and inte­grate the two lan­guages.

In these new classes, instead of telling the autistic person to stop stim­ming, stim­ming would be com­pletely accept­able and under­stood because neu­rotyp­ical people would under­stand the impor­tant and in-depth meaning behind stim­ming.

Furthermore, instead of telling the neu­rotyp­ical person to stop hinting instead of speaking directly, hinting would be com­pletely accept­able and under­stood because the neu­ro­di­verse person would under­stand the impor­tant and in-depth meaning behind hinting.

Autistic and Non-autistic are Not “Conditions,” They’re Languages

Neurotypical people are the majority in this world, but if the roles were reversed, and neu­rotyp­ical people were the minority, would any neu­rotyp­ical person (or their child) want to be given rewards and pun­ish­ments for stop­ping their nat­ural behavior and trading it in for some­thing com­pletely for­eign to them? No. The con­cept would be unthink­able!

Imagine if there were ABA-like classes for neu­rotyp­ical chil­dren where they were pun­ished for using facial expres­sions instead of words, or hinting at some­thing instead of saying it directly, or speaking in metaphors instead of being lit­eral. That would be pure tor­ture and com­pletely unfair!

And that’s exactly what ABA is for autistic people: pure tor­ture and com­pletely unfair.

Being autistic is not a con­di­tion. Being non-autistic is not a con­di­tion. They are two dif­ferent neu­ro­log­ical lan­guages that both neu­rotypes can learn and under­stand given the cor­rect tools and envi­ron­ment to do so.

Once we start framing our neu­ro­log­ical dif­fer­ences as lan­guages to be learned instead of deficits to be fixed, we will be well on our way to a hap­pier, healthier, less-traumatized society.

11 Comments

  1. I think of it as a dif­ferent oper­ating system. 🙂

    1. This is a better way of putting it. You can’t teach a neu­rotyp­ical to “speak” neu­ro­di­ver­gent any more than you could get an Apple II to run Windows 10, and any attempt to do so would give them only an incom­plete under­standing at best. That goes for the “autistic classes” too- neu­rotyp­i­cals often act as if they barely under­stand their own lan­guages, so why should we have to learn it when they haven’t done so them­selves?

      1. Author

        I think, in classes like this, if they existed, would do won­ders for teaching neu­rotyp­i­cals how they think because it would force them to put logic and reason into their words and actions. That would create a great deal of mind­ful­ness and might even make a much better society overall.

  2. This is an AWESOME insight.

    I’m not sure I agree with the premise that neu­rotyp­ical people CAN be taught to “speak neu­ro­di­ver­gent” and vice versa … but even is I am right, the insight that this is what NEEDS TO BE ACHIEVED … rather than simply caning the neu­ro­di­ver­gent for their “defiant act” of “being dif­ferent” is a hugely valu­able one.

    I have suf­fered all my life simply for “being dif­ferent” … at the hands of people who ASSUMED that I was dif­ferent because I CHOSE TO BE .… and they couldn’t under­stand why anyone would make such a choice … but given that they assumed I had, they assumed that I was equally able to choose not to be … and that there­fore they were per­fectly jus­ti­fied in per­se­cuting me for this “choice” because I didn’t have to make it, and any time I didn’t want to be per­se­cuted all I had to do was UNchoose to be dif­ferent.

    Well, it ain’t like that, is it?

    But … I’ve never been able to explain it to them. This article, how­ever, is a first and very valu­able step down the road to that expla­na­tion that we all need.

    Thank you for writing it.

  3. That’s an inter­esting analogy. I never thought of it that way. Thanks for sharing.

    1. I agree — excel­lent analogy!


  4. I’m not sure that I agree with this. Autism IS a descrip­tion of ‘behav­iour. There are many many dif­ferent rea­sons for being “autistic”. Also apart for the causes of autism, there is a very very wide range of behav­iours, intel­li­gence, abil­i­ties.
    Until ‘autism’ is no longer treated as a single mental or emo­tional dis­ability , people with autism will suffer.
    High func­tioning people with Asperger’s can have great dif­fi­culty fit­ting in with unstreamed classes. But they come into their own when they get to higher Education estab­lish­ments.
    There can also be greater prob­lems with Asperger’s indi­vid­uals in ‘lower socio-economic ’ areas’, The do NOT fit in with the ‘Snob’ bour­geoisie classes either where it is impor­tant to do the ‘done thing’.

    Odd-bods with IQ. of 140+ need an edu­ca­tion, milieu, job to suit their needs, When they find these, they become ‘neu­rotyp­ical’ in their envi­ron­ment. Asperger’s. Graded schools are a blessing, Th=there they can be treated as per­fectly normal humans beings. With our the social pres­sure of the ‘depress­ingly average, boring people.
    People with extra­or­di­nary abil­i­ties but low to normal in other areas need a dif­ferent milieu again. These are often lumped a ‘gifted’ espe­cially is they have low social intel­li­gence. Once these people have found an outlet for their gifts they are feted by the world. But many of them fall be the way­side.
    On the other hand, genetics or brain damage can make indi­vid­uals hand­i­capped phys­i­cally and men­tally.
    They can (and DO) find extra­or­di­nary dif­fi­culty coping in a society that see them as worth­less. It is these indi­vid­uals the most pole think of a Autistics. But the rea­sons for their hand­i­capped their behav­iours and their abil­i­ties can be widely varied. Each deserves to be treated as an indi­vidual and helped to sur­vive in the social system they find them­selves in.

    1. Author

      No. Autism is not a descrip­tion of behavior. It is a dif­ferent neu­ro­log­ical wiring of the brain.

  5. I like the idea that autism is a dif­ferent lan­guage. I have often found myself lamenting the need for, and lack of, a “neu­rotyp­ical inter­preter.”

    Of course, this applies mostly to verbal autis­tics. Nonverbal autis­tics have a whole host of other prob­lems in addi­tion to speaking a dif­ferent lan­guage. I am highly verbal (most of the time) so I don’t claim to speak for those who are not.

    I think a lot of dif­fi­cul­ties that autis­tics expe­ri­ence inter­acting with NTs/allistics is that there are cer­tain expec­ta­tions under­lying the com­mu­ni­ca­tion that define how body move­ments, spoken, and unspoken mes­sages are inter­preted. Neurotypicals tend to impute meaning where there is none. Autistics tend to believe the words that are said without con­sid­ering or some­times even noticing any unspoken con­text. Neither way is right or better as both have their ben­e­fits and weak­nesses. But I think that under­standing these fun­da­mental dif­fer­ences will go a long way in unwinding a lot of mis­un­der­standing, hurt and abuse that colors a typ­ical NT/ND inter­ac­tion.

    Beyond that, I’m not sure that your analogy holds. Your story of a for­eign lan­guage stu­dent learning the dif­fer­ence between “perro” and “pero” doesn’t really hold water because indeed you describe how chil­dren learn the dif­fer­ence. Their minds are too imma­ture to under­stand an aca­d­emic expla­na­tion of the con­text between one word and the other. Instead they simply begin by making a bunch of sounds until those sounds begin to reflect lan­guage that is rec­og­niz­able by the adults in the room. When the adults respond pos­i­tively, such as show­ering praise down on the baby for saying “dada,” the baby learns that saying dada is good. They say it more and in com­pletely inap­pro­priate con­texts all the while sub­con­sciously picking up on what con­texts yield the praise they crave and what con­text does not. This is how lan­guage forms in infants.

    This is also how ABA attempts to teach “neu­rotyp­ical lan­guage.”

    So I think your argu­ment here isn’t that “ABA=bad because lan­guage” so much as “ABA=bad because dis­re­spectful to a devel­oped human mind and prob­ably many other rea­sons. Also ND is a lan­guage”

    So, I sup­pose what I’m sug­gesting is that you sep­a­rate your crit­i­cism of ABA from your claim that autism can be help­fully viewed as a neu­ro­log­ical lan­guage. I think you end up with a much clearer and stronger case for your point.

  6. Temple Grandin has report­edly said that we need to teach social skills to kids with autism as if they come from the planet Mars, and has described her­self as an “anthro­pol­o­gist from Mars” in the article at this link: https://www.theguardian.com/education/2005/oct/25/highereducationprofile.academicexperts .

    As a parent of a child who has autism, I do what Temple says par­ents should do because she is an autism “insider,” and she there­fore knows better than any “out­sider” what works and what doesn’t for people who are on the autism spec­trum. I’m a recently self-diagnosed autist myself, so I’m still learning about this facet of my life. However, I’ve con­sciously dealt with the social, aca­d­emic, phys­i­o­log­ical and psy­cho­log­ical mis­con­cep­tions that go along with being African-American all my life. So, I have first-hand knowl­edge of just how dif­ferent and off-base soci­etal per­cep­tions can be of a per­son’s intel­li­gence, phys­ical appear­ance, capacity for lan­guage, inner thought life, and even the degree to which that indi­vidual should actu­ally be con­sid­ered human. Consequently, I place great value on the “insider” per­spec­tive.

    Because I decided to follow Grandin’s rec­om­men­da­tion to “appren­tice” my son in my pro­fes­sion, he’s been serving as my assis­tant when I teach ESL to adult learners. And, I’ve come to realize that Grandin and the author of this post are right about the merits of approaching social skill instruc­tion (verbal and non­verbal com­mu­ni­ca­tion) for autists in same way that we would approach teaching a second lan­guage to any stu­dent.

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