#AccessibleAcademia Theory of Autistic Mind (Williams, 2021)

You can read this paper in full for the remainder of June 2021 here: https://doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.616664

Nothing about us without us
Who: Williams
Journal: Journal of Pragmatics
Published: 2021
Title: Theory of Autistic Mind: a Renewed Relevance Theoretic Perspective on So-Called Autistic Pragmatic ‘Impairment’.
Theory of Autistic Mind
Q: How many times do you think the queen has ridden a whale?

Lots of previous research about autism says that autistic people have “pragmatic impairments”, meaning that we take what other people say literally, and that we aren’t able to see any other “layers” to communication beyond the literal or surface meaning.
The research thinks autistic people have a pragmatic impairment because we are “mindblind”. This means we cannot know the ways that other people think in the ways that neurotypical people know.
This paper disagrees with all of the above.

There has been more recent research that show that non-autistic people struggle to infer autistic people’s emotions & mental states. Also, autistic people are very good at communicating with other autistic people.
The Double Empathy Problem suggests that the difficulties in communication are not due to a failing in the autistic person, but is a co-occurring problem between both people in the conversation.

The thing is, there have been a lot of assumptions about autistic pragmatic “deficits” in historical research, which is simply not the case for all autistic people, and one of the ways this is shown through the extensive use of figurative and metaphorical language by autistic authors.

Relevance theory:
This theory thinks that “intention recognition” is a super important part of communicating. When you speak, you are aiming to do two things:
1) using words to express an assumption to someone
(informative intention)
2) draw the other persons attention to the fact that you are expressing something to them
(communicative intention)

So what even is a relevance theory?
The relevance theory is a theory of communication which thinks that we “say” a lot more than the literal meaning of what we’re saying. There are loads of different ways to interpret what someone says to us! So, we have to sort through all these meanings to try and find what it is that they are trying to say.

There are some things that we don’t technically KNOW, but we can figure it out. If there are facts and assumptions that we might be able to figure out, we call it “manifest”. But how do we know things that we don’t technically KNOW?

How many times do you think the queen has ridden a whale?

We have a lot of information available to us, including all the facts and assumptions we hold, ones that we can build from other information …
(e.g. we can assume that the queen has never ridden a whale, because of things we already know about the queens leisure activities and about how easy whales are to ride!)
… we have lots of this type of assumptions, based upon our individual knowledge, our cognitive abilities, and
our physical environment.
All of this information is our “cognitive environment”. 

When we want to tell someone something, we aim for specific parts of our cognitive environments to overlap – this is when we think of information and they are thinking about it too. We are both thinking about the same things. But also, we need to know that we are both thinking about the same things. When this happens, the information is said to be “mutually manifest”.

The cognitive environment of autistic people is probably really, really different to that of non-autistic people. We have different cognitive abilities, different patterns of hyper- and hypo-sensitivities, we have attentional differences, we perceive and think about the world a lot differently to non-autistic people!
That makes this “cognitive environment overlap” super difficult to achieve.

Because of how different our cognitive environment is, when something is said, a non-autistic person and an autistic person might immediately draw upon facts, assumptions, & understandings which are completely different from one another, because they have had completely different experiences of the world, and therefore different pieces of information will be more “manifest” to each person.

But despite drawing on completely different information, each person might THINK that the other has the same thoughts as them.
And when someone assumes that there is “mutual manifestness” (that you’re both thinking the same thing, and also that you both know you both are thinking the same thing) but there is not mutual manifestness, this will lead to a breakdown in communication.

But the important thing to remember is this:
The autistic person is not thinking, or communicating, wrong. We are simply doing it differently to the dominant neurotype (but in line with our individual life experiences & cognitive abilities).

This is a really important distinction, and it shows an important flaw in previous research into
autistic communication:
Most of the research assessing autistic communication has been conducted by a non-autistic researcher with a completely different cognitive environment. They will have struggle to reach a state of “mutual manifestness”, and with the non-autistic assessors cognitive environment as the dominant one, there may have been the assumption that to deviate from this is to be “impaired” rather than different.

Lots of research into autistic communication happens through “interactional expertise”, which is when a non-autistic is in possession of expertise knowledge about autism without being autistic, through interacting with autistic people. It is really important to have autistic people participate fully in research about autism, with the understanding about the different cognitive environments, so that important information about autistic language use is not “lost in translation” between autistic people and non-autistic researchers.

It is super important to understand that autistic communication works differently, but not inferiorly.
This is particularly important in the medical field, where autistic people face health inequalities.
Autistic children have been found to experience violations of their communication rights, and there needs to be a shift away from behavioural training and towards an environment of mutually
rewarding communication.

Future research needs to look at the effect of “double minority status” on communication for autistic people who are not white, not straight, and/or not cisgender. It seems that the more different the cognitive environment of person A to person B, the harder it will be to understand one another. This has historically been understood in terms of a deficit due to one group of people (non-autistic) being in a position of dominance over the other (autistic). Instead of recognising that autistic communication is different but effective, the deviance from the norm was interpreted as a deficit.

It is also important to research the communication of non-speaking or minimally speaking autistic people, as well as the communication of autistic people with intellectual disabilities.
A communication theory is incomplete until it is able to explain all language use and not just majority language use.
Developing ways to bridge communication differences is essential in supporting this community.

Wow, that was complicated!
Well done for reading this far.
The general take away is that autistic people are not deficient or bad at communicating. Neurotypical and autistic people have a hard time talking to each other because we have really different thoughts! We aren’t wrong, though. Research is changing to reflect the fact that autistic people do things differently, not incorrectly.

One response to “#AccessibleAcademia Theory of Autistic Mind (Williams, 2021)”

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