Monday, February 15, 2010

Disjunction Junction

So one of the things that T is unable to get is the word "or." I say, do you want grape juice or prune juice? He says, "yes." I say, no, no, you need to PICK one. He says, "please." I pull them out and hold them both out in front of me and say: "Point to the one you want." "which one? which one?" he points at the grape juice and says "do you want grape juice?" then slowly swings to the other and says "or prune juice?" I coach him: "Say, 'I want THAT ONE!'" he does it, but ... okay, I'll spare you the agonies of this process. Suffice it to say, I think we're getting somewhere but it is DEFINITELY a process. It's been weeks. Anyhow, I think he will get it soon, largely thanks to my "story therapy."

Basically I write stories and tell them in which characters have dialogue over and over in situations that hopefully demonstrate what is going on. Our latest in the series features Veronica, whose cruel mother makes her choose between two items over and over again before she can do anything. first, she gets dressed, and has to choose shirts and pants and sweaters and socks and shoes and maybe a hat. there are always only 2 choices, and her mother always gives her the one she picks. He seems to love the Veronica stories so I'm hopeful it's because he's starting to get the "or" business.

But I've been wondering what this is all about. What does it mean that he doesn't seem to get this? Is it normal? Is it part of a communication disorder? S certainly didn't have this problem. I can't even remember how old he was when he got that he needed to point at what he wants when I offered a choice. It's been a long time. According to Laura Mize at, typical children master this ability to choose between 2 options by 30 months. (see this helpful page with tips for how to speed things along.)

So he's about 6 months behind and counting in this, and I get the feeling that without my intervention ... well, there's no telling how long it would take him. Maybe he would just eventually get it? I dunno.

I wish I knew why it was so difficult for him. I did find an abstract of this paper: "Is this a dax which I see before me? Use of the logical argument disjunctive syllogism supports word-learning in children and adults." What the author seems to be saying is that both adults and preschoolers use process of elimination in order to map word meanings. In other words, if you use the word "dax" to refer to something in the room, and there are only 2 things in the room, one of which you've never heard named before, and one of which is a hairbrush, you will naturally say to yourself, "oh, she must mean either the brush or that thing. Since I know the word for brush is 'brush,' 'dax' must refer to that thing.

This is a pretty basic component of logical reasoning. Is it possible that there is something wrong with T's ability to engage in this kind of "disjunctive syllogism?" Is this why he didn't start learning language until I began this systematic effort to laboriously teach him language piece by piece? Is it related to his difficulty understanding 'or'? Could it be that his brain just doesn't do disjunctive?

Why I torture myself with these questions? I guess because it's looking like I can expect to get zero help from the county for T unless I go to the mat. And I really don't want to.

And part of me is getting really pooped out. Did I mention that the Emory Autism Center interacts with the autistic kids every ONE to THREE minutes over eight hours per day? Do you know how hard it is to interact with a kid every THREE MINUTES (never mind ONE!!)? When you have ANOTHER KID?? I do, thanks to my fancy new electronic timer. It ain't easy. OK, it's impossible. It really is. I just can't do it.

Am I really screwing up because I'm (largely) not succeeding at doing it? -OR- Am I killing myself by trying for no real reason, because maybe it doesn't make any difference? {are you impressed with the way I almost made my little digression relevant to the supposed subject of this entry?}

Of course the beauty of it all is that I will never, ever, ever know. Either way, I will never know whether anything I am doing made any difference or how much or if I am doing more than I need to or not enough. I will never know.

But here is one other not completely related thought: thinking about this apparently inherent tendency to think in the disjunctive reminds me of a lot of things I've read (but didn't understand) about non-duality or non-dualism. I would explain what that is, but like I said, I don't really know. You might check out the Wikipedia explanation. But the way I've chosen to interpret it for now is ... sometimes people tend to think in dichotomies, and they're not real, either because there is no true division between the two alternatives, or ... whatever. I don't really understand it. If you think you understand it, please let me know what you think it means.

But ... where I'm going here is ... could it be that some special individuals are just born without this tendency to interpret the world in dichotomies? The rest of us are certainly famous for our false dichotomies. And some of us are famous apparently for denying the existence of dichotomies the rest of us are pretty settled on. And even our computers think that way, don't they? with their zeros and ones. on or off. we love to see the world in pairs. stop and go. yes and no. mind and body. man vs. nature. young and old. we've even paired up colors, although we call those complements.

Could it be that this lack of the disjunctive is part of what has made so many autistic geniuses through history? Could it be that some people -- BECAUSE they are unburdened with (false) dichotomies -- are able to think "outside the box?"

Could it be that this tendency to think in the disjunctive puts the rest of us in the box?

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