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Sanctuary

Social interaction as a kind of foreign language - an analogy

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Sanctuary

I've been thinking recently about how for those with autism social interaction and communication can be like a foreign language - one they can learn with varying degrees of success but struggle to master. For some with maybe classic or the most profound autism they may not know the language at all, or maybe just a few words, perhaps relying on gestures to communicate. Others have more grasp but find it difficult to interact and communicate without support.

Most who have Asperger's / higher function forms of autism are more able to function in social situations / communication. They can learn the language of social interaction but never reach a position of fluency and this can make communication a strain for themselves and others. Just as a non-fluent speaker may make errors which make it clear to others they are not natives, the autistic person can make social communication errors – perhaps just taking too long to respond or asking too much for clarification -which others can find frustrating. Sometimes a person speaking a foreign language is fluent but still appears an outsider. This can even be because their speech is excessively formal and “correct”. They may have a lack of awareness of idioms and slang expressions resulting in misunderstandings. Even if these problems are overcome their foreign accent (especially if it is strong) can mark them out as an outsider. The same can be true for an autistic person who may have an excellent “formal” knowledge of social communication but who is less able to function via informal communication or who somehow still seems “not to blend in”.   

The person who has learnt a language academically will often feel more comfortable in contexts where formal language is being used – this is most often the case with written communication such as in books and documents. They may be less comfortable with spoken and informal language where nuances of pronunciation, tone, body language and departures from literality are common. The same is true for many with autism. Autistic people may feel much more comfortable communicating in writing - which tends to be much more formal and literal - but far less confident in face-to-face situations.

I must stress this is just an analogy and very generalised but I feel there are parallels. One of the things which I'd like to challenge is the stereotype in wider society that individuals with ASD have no awareness (or sometimes respect) for social rules or conventions. Very often they do and they want to make a good impression but somehow they seem not to fit in. Maybe they can seem to be "trying too hard", lacking the confidence of neurotypicals in social situations.

Edited by Sanctuary
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HalfFull

@Sanctuary   I can totally relate to that. I did a year abroad in France and have written a similar analogy in a book article I'm currently working on, but more from the cultural perspective. As an Aspie I definitely had the most trouble of the 7 English-speaking students circumnavigating the different culture, given that that was hard enough to get right in my own country. I think it was put down to my foreignness. Apparently at the start of the year one tutor jokingly referred to us foreigners as 'les handicappés' because not being from there made it harder for us, and it really was like we were children again. Obviously much of this was the language barrier too. None of us were fluent at the start of the year. 

So, for someone living in a foreign country where they can speak the language but not fluently, even if they are NT, the communication difficulties that they face purely from a language perspective could be on a par with an Aspie having communication difficulties where their use of the language is technically correct, but either its formal and stilted, or the same as the average NT but delivered in a different and awkward manner.

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