I just finished listening to the audio version of the book “The Martian” by John Weir. It is about an astronaut that is trapped on Mars and all the detailed science that he uses to survive. The movie that is coming out soon will star Matt Damon (swoon). Usually I think the book is better than the movie. However, in this case, I am pretty sure that the movie will be better than the book for me. First, reading all that detail and math and formulas bored me to death. Second, the concept of someone actually surviving alone on Mars is dramatic and interesting to me. And Matt Damon is cute.
So what does this have to do with autism? Quite a bit actually. As a Speech-Language Pathologist who specializes in autism, I get a lot of questions about language comprehension. It is almost always an issue for people who have autism. And, it’s a very broad issue. Language comprehension is the ability to connect and interpret meaning for oral and written language. It includes things like recalling facts, getting the main idea, making inferences, borrowing perspective, making predictions and coming to conclusions. It is clear that language comprehension is tightly tied to understanding, thinking and relating. These are areas that can be difficult for someone who has the diagnosis of autism. Language comprehension issues lead to frustration, disconnection and embarrassment. It places distance between the person with the issue and those who do not have it. It is an “invisible” disability that most people do not know how to detect or empathize with.
Language comprehension difficulties can stem from a variety of sources. It can be about the way the person hears or filters sounds and it can be about how the person processes what they hear. Dr Allen Paivio writes about language comprehension issues using his “Dual Coding Theory”. His theory states that language processing stems from two distinct cognitive subsystems. One is verbal and one is non-verbal. The verbal system is specialized for language. For understanding the actual words and syntax of what is being said. The non-verbal system is specialized for the understanding of the world in the form of mental imagery. So one system is what we hear being said, and the other is about picturing it and deriving the meaning from it. Sometimes a person with language processing issues has difficulty because the mechanisms of the ear and the processing of the sounds is different. Almost always a person with language processing issues has difficulty understanding the big picture due to lack of visualization ability. Visualizing what we read and hear is necessary for interpretation, critical thinking, empathy, reasoning and problem solving. We imagine or visualize what we read or hear and that gives us the context and connections to understand the language. Its why the book is almost always better than the movie. We can imagine and visualize in ways that are not limited by the physical world or Hollywood’s budget.
So what happens when visualization is difficult? In the case of the Martian book, I could not follow or understand all the formulas and science the author wrote about in detail. I couldn’t picture it. So during those parts, I disconnected. I pushed fast forward until I found what was of interest to me. Sound familiar? Since I was unable to visualize what he was talking about, I focused on the parts I could visualize. And I am sure that the movie will be better for me, since the visualization will fall to Ridley Scott (director) and I can sit back and eat popcorn. In my next blog, I will write about how to help your child with visualization to improve language comprehension. And, I will fill you in on Matt’s performance as the super resourceful astronaut.