“How are you?”
“Fine, thank you.”
The simple greeting exchange—which technically does not constitute a meaningful use of language—serves as fertile ground for understanding some fundamental differences between autistic and non-autistic perspectives, and also serves as an occasion for respecting and valuing those differences.
The simple greeting exchange, especially as practiced by non-autistic individuals, is the quintessence of biological immediacy. If the verbal aspect of the exchange can be said to be about anything, it is about what is already biologically present—two members of the species Homo sapiens interacting within the same immediate time and space constraints as the conversation itself. That is why it can be said that technically speaking, the exchange is not a meaningful use of language. Language is ordinarily the use of a biologically immediate artifact (spoken sounds, for instance) to represent something that is not biologically present (an event removed in space or time, for instance). In the simple greeting exchange, everything that needs to be conveyed is already present, so of what purpose is the language?
In the simple greeting exchange—with the exception of the words—everything is ancient and complex. Such exchanges have been taking place on this planet from almost the beginning of biology itself, and although each exchange happens in no more than an instant, each occurrence also conveys a cornucopia of species-driven information forged from the long-burning furnace of evolutionary time. Observe two members of almost any animal species as they come together—ants along the trail, lions in their den, barracuda on the prowl—each exchange is just as eloquent, just as informational, as any end-of-the-month business transaction. In mammals—and in primates especially—this exchange is brought about by means of a precise set of sensory-based conventions—eye contact, body posture, clucks and coos, nuzzles, sniffs, licks, etc. Not a word ever needs to be spoken; and in all the other animal species, not a word is spoken. The other animal species have no conception of a yesterday or a tomorrow, no conception of a mile to the east or a mile to the west; so the other animal species have no need for language. And least of all do they have need for language during the simple greeting exchange—the epitome of conversational biological immediacy.
Humans were like this once too; and if we remove their words, we see that they still are.
Language was a late arrival on the human scene, and its purpose is far removed from being an aid to conversational biological immediacy. If the words of the simple greeting exchange can be said to have meaning beyond just their immediate occasion (an occasion that needs no words), it might be said that they serve as a marker, an indicator—they mark the occasion of a biologically immediate conversation. Humans—and in particular non-autistic humans—take the words of the simple greeting exchange as the signal the intricate dance of eye contact, body posture, etc. has begun. Or to give the notion more sophistication, humans might be said to be using the simple greeting exchange as an indicator that this is not an instance of biological immediacy qua animal, but instead an instance of biological immediacy in the context of greater civility. (But then again, each participant was already aware of that.)
In the simple greeting exchange, the text dissolves to nothing, and the subtext expands to incorporate everything.
Autistic individuals often find themselves discomfited by the simple greeting exchange. One of the reasons for this is that autistic individuals will often take the simple greeting exchange quite literally—that is, they will take it as an expression of language. For instance, they understand “fine” to be an accurate report of the other person’s status, only to discover perhaps that circumstances are otherwise (“Couldn’t you see the anger in my face?” the other will say). In response to “How are you?” or “What’s been happening?”, autistic individuals will often provide a detailed and factual account of their recent situation—spatially, temporally and logically arranged—and will find themselves bewildered when they realize the other person is bewildered by the reply.
Language, by its original intent, bridges the gap between biological immediacy and the more remote realms of space, time and non-biological structure and pattern. Autistic individuals intuitively understand this, because cognitively speaking, they exist far more comfortably inside those remote realms.
“How many ceiling fans do you have in your house?”
“What an interesting question! I have three ceiling fans in my house.”
“What rooms are they in?”
“Let’s see…there is one in the living room, one in the bedroom, and another one on the porch.”
“Is the ceiling fan on the porch spinning?”
The autistic greeting exchange is a work of art, although it is seldom recognized as such. It is a work of art primarily because it uses language almost exclusively in its original and creative form—as a biologically immediate artifact intended to represent, or to inquire about, an event spatially, temporally or biologically removed. When the autistic greeting exchange goes well, an autistic participant feels informed, and thus also feels comforted and welcomed—the same feelings a non-autistic individual receives upon a successful simple greeting exchange.
In the autistic greeting exchange, the text encompasses everything, and the subtext disappears.
Imagine a behavioral speech therapist trying to teach the simple greeting exchange to a young autistic child—employing countless discrete trials, wondering why progress is so painfully slow, perplexed by how the skill does not transfer outside the training room. But if the therapist were instead to teach the child the autistic greeting exchange—incorporating ceiling fans, light switches, Thomas the Tank Engine, or whatever else might be of interest to this particular child—would not the child’s attention perk up almost immediately? Would not progress be considerably faster and the skills more widely practiced? “But that is not the goal,” the therapist will object. “The goal is not to have the child greet people with inappropriate banter about ceiling fans, light switches or Thomas the Tank Engine. The goal is to have the child greet people with the simple greeting exchange.”
“Inappropriate” is indeed the correct adjective here, but not applied to the banter. Is the aim of this therapy to teach the child the use of language, or to make the child indistinguishable from all his peers?
Autistic individuals will often bemoan the pettiness and insincerity of the simple greeting exchange, but that is a misunderstanding—they are overlooking billions of year of intricate and essential biology.
Non-autistic individuals will often decry the inappropriateness of the autistic greeting exchange, but that is also a misunderstanding—they are overlooking the glory, and the origin, of a creative use of words.
(Thanks to Bev at Asperger Square 8 for the inspiration.)