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The Real Learning Disability
(what language really tells us about people)

On Education and Learning



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Have you ever struggled to understand what a teacher was saying? Have you ever asked them if they could say it in a different way? In this chapter of On Education and Learning, we're going to explore yet another aspect of how children learn. As well as another fractal. The one which most affects children's ability to learn language. Including how they voice what they learn. Sound intriguing? "It certainly is, Ollie."

The Asperger's Mind (Fuzzy Words / Fussy Words)

Chapter Twenty Nine

Fussy and Fuzzy Ran a Race. Fussy Fell Down and . . .

When I was a boy, girls jumping rope sang things like, "Skinny and fatty ran a race. Skinny fell down and broke his face." And, "Step on a crack. Break your mother's back." Now most of you know I have Asperger's. So can you guess how I interpreted these words?

Of course, me being me, I took these words literally. Can you imagine? Laughing little eight year old girls singing, "break your mother's back!" Whoa! Was I confused. And try as I might, I could not, for the life of me, understand what would make them say such things. No less laugh while they said them.

Fast forward to August 2004. I start working with a little eight year old boy. A boy who, like me, has Asperger's. And as I watched his struggles, especially with his dad, I realized why I had struggled so to understood those childhood sayings. You see, he, too, understood only the literal meanings of peoples' words. And none of the social content.

Fortunately for this boy, his dad was the most patient father I have ever seen. Which explained why week after week, he patiently battled what I eventually came to call, his son's "fussy word disease."

What the heck is "fussy word disease?" Start with that it's not exactly a disease. I call it this merely to bring to peoples' attention that having this condition is painful. Both for the parents and for the child.

What is it though? It's when a child takes every thing you say as if you chose your words perfectly. Straight from a dictionary. With no non verbal meaning. Which then means, if you want to say something to one of these kids, you had better say it exactly as you mean it. Otherwise, you're going to hear about it.

This in fact is how this boy responded to most of his father's words. Thus if his dad said something like that they were leaving in ten minutes, at precisely ten minutes, they had better be leaving. No if's and's or but's. If not, the boy would blurt things out like, "you never do what you say!" "You promised!" Or "You lied!"

Worst case he might even call him, "stupid!" Can you imagine?

Being his dad was such a patient man, whenever this happened, he would calmly try to explain how he hadn't meant exactly ten minutes, that what he said was simply a figure of speech.

Of course, the boy would totally blow off these efforts, then rudely argue, "You're wrong! That's not what you meant!" Which would usually result in his father reluctantly getting firm with him.

At times, watching this happen made me well up with tears. This dad so obviously loved his son. And the boy so obviously loved his father. Despite this love though, week after week, they could not find a way to understand each other. Nor to stop their ever present arguing.

Finally, one day it hit me that the problem had nothing to do with this boy's social skills. Not directly, anyway. Nor was it rooted in his poor impulse control and outbursts of disrespect. What was happening was simply that when the boy said to his father, "you're wrong," he was simply trying to make him speak in a way in which he, the boy, could understand. In the boy's own language. And when this didn't happen, his frustration overwhelmed him and he blurted out insults.

Shortly after that, I began to call the boy's language, "fussy." And his father's language, "fuzzy." At which point, I explained this idea, the idea of "two languages," to the family. Then whenever this father spoke "fuzzy," I would gently remind him that "fuzzy" language confused his son. And whenever the boy felt compelled to make his speak "fussy," I reminded the boy that "fuzzy" was his and my language, not his father's.

These reminders also helped me as well. They reminded me that in no way did the boy intend to hurt his father. In fact, whenever I managed to get him to see he had hurt his father, he'd burst into tears. Partly from this realization. And partly from the sheer frustration of having to work so hard to be understood.

Here then was the opening I had been looking for. The boy's problem was that he had no sense of the personal meaning of his father's words. A meaning I was calling, the "fuzzy" meaning as in, the "warm fuzzy" meaning. And the father, while he could logically grasp the words his son was saying, had no idea his son could not interpret words in other than dictionary meanings.

Today, when I think about how most of today's therapists refer to Asperger's as a social impairment, I feel sad. They're missing the point. Moreover, treating these kids as if the main problem is a social problem only makes them worse.

The social difficulties in Asperger's are not the main problem. I say this knowing full well how disruptive kids with Asperger's can be. Even so, beneath this behavior is a far more basic problem. The thing which actually provokes their antisocial behavior. Their inability to navigate the range of specificity within normal folks' language. The degree to which we do, and do not, include the meaning in our words.

What I'm saying is, Asperger's is first and foremost a language problem, not a socialization problem. And whether these kids' brains are wired differently or not simply does not matter. Whatever the case, they, and I, simply speak a different language. Fussy. And because the majority of the world speaks fuzzy, we get told we have a disability.

Why all this talk about Asperger's? Because discovering fussy and fussy as the root problem in Asperger's lead me to an equally important realization. That ADD is better seen as, "fuzzy word disease." If I am right then and I believe I am, then this is why we are seeing so many kids with ADD. Why? Because fuzzy is the majority language. The way at least fifty percent of kids naturally speak. Unfortunately, teachers, when they teach, must lean toward fussy as the way in which to get what they are teaching across. This then creates in classroom a major mismatch. A mismatch similar to the one I've been telling you about between the boy and his father.

ADD and Asperger's. According to many, they are the two current scourges of education. Sadly, by failing to recognize the lingual specificity problems inherent in these conditions, we treat these kids as defective learners or social misfits rather than "strangers is a strange land."

So what about medication? Doesn't it help? At times, yes, and at times, it's even necessary. Especially when the the problem has gone on for years. However, as a permanent solution, I would ask we look for more. Why? Because the single most common complaint in these children is that no one understands them. Moreover, no medication in the world is going to remedy this situation.

"The Continuum of Lingual Specificity" offers us a non medical alternative. With this knowledge, we can design pragmatic tools with which to matching kids to teachers who speak their language.

This, then, is what we'll be exploring in this chapter. What I see as probably the most important change we could make to our kids educations. What change? Putting them in classrooms where teachers speak their language. By column's end, I hope you'll see the wonderful possibilities this could lead us to. Possibilities which are easily within our reach. Today, not tomorrow. Don't our kids deserve this?

Now let's take a more fussy look at the fractal to which I've been referring. Including how I could be calling this circle, a "fractal."

Learning Our A B Cs

I've heard it said, most human achievements came directly from that we developed written language. In part, this may be why we teach children their A B Cs so early on. The thing is, even before we teach children their A B Cs, they have already internalized a more basic language. A way of communicating which will bias and affect all they learn for the rest of their lives. As well as how they voice this learning.

What is this "something?" A tiny bias which, up to now, seems to have been overlooked, certainly by educators. No surprise this bias is fractal, meaning, it is a recognizable pattern which always repeats differently.

Know this "always differently" part is what makes it so hard for us to see, both for fussy people and fuzzy people alike.

So what is this fractal which affects our whole nature? And what the heck are "fussy" people and "fuzzy" people?

In fussy peoples' words, I call this fractal, "The Continuum of Lingual Specificity." And in fuzzy peoples' words, I call this fractal, the "fussy / fuzzy fractal."

What is the fussy / fuzzy fractal and what does it say about us?

The fussy / fuzzy fractal is an internal bias which refers to the level of detail we include in our stories, both to others and to ourselves. This bias toward (or away from) including detail ranges from very fussy thinking and speaking (the highly detailed precisely scientific version of the story) to very fuzzy thinking and speaking (the warm fuzzy spiritually meaningful version of the story).

Know we all fall somewhere within this range, from scientifically fussy to spiritual fuzzy. Which means this fractal affects far more than just how we tell our stories. It also determines how and who we learn from best. As well as which subjects we'll feel drawn to study; the technically abstract to the artistically vague.

In addition, because this fractal determines who we'll understand, it also influences who we choose as friends. Why? Because our friends are the ones we say "understand us best." It also influences which career we choose. Why? We choose our careers largely based on what we think we'll be able to learn; be it the science beneath being an X-ray tech to the spiritual vagaries of a poetry editor.

Again, we make these choices largely based on where we fall, within this range, from fussy to fuzzy.

At times, this preference even makes us label our kids. For instance, we label kids whose learning style seems to make words an extremely rigid science with the label, "Asperger's." Which means what exactly? Which means these kids fall on the extreme fussy end of the fussy / fuzzy continuum.

This is why they learn best when what they learn is based on factually fussy terms. The more precise the better. At least, with regard to the things which interest them. Math, science, and so on.

"There are seventy two proofs for Pythagoras' Theorem. I know all seventy two."

"The poet, William Blake, wrote: "I have heard many people say, give me the ideas. It is no matter what words you put them into. But to me, ideas cannot be given but in their minutely appropriate Words." - William Blake.

Both these fussy ideas are true, by the way.

Then too, when kids fall on the extremely fuzzy end of the fussy / fuzzy continuum, we label them with the mirror condition to Asperger's; ADD. Which means simply that these kids prefer socializing and chit chat to paying attention in class and memorizing facts.

Thus, when it comes to learning, these kids would rather "fudge it" than study it. At least, with regard to the things which do not interest them.

"Stay in you seat, Peter, and cut out the chatter. You're disturbing the whole class."

See what I'm getting at? Still not seeing it? Then let's try the personal approach.

Do you enjoy talking about the weather and whether it will rain on Thursday or not? Then your degree of Lingual Specificity leans toward the fuzzy end of the line. However, if you like talking about things like the historical possibility there was once a double gamma (a letter of the Greek alphabet believed by some to have existed in ancient Greece), then you lean toward the fussy end of the fussy / fuzzy scale.

Do you like bluffing at cards? Then you're a fuzzy kind of person. However, if memorizing the odds of drawing a full house in five card stud is your nature, that you are a fussy person.

When you were a kid and your mother told you to "clean your room," did you hear her request as her asking you to "somehow make your room look better?"

Majorly fuzzy.

Or did cleaning your room require you to write a dissertation on how best to arrange and organize your underwear; daily to special occasions; light colors to dark?

Definitely fussy.

Are you beginning to get the gist of how this fussy / fuzzy thing works? If so, can you see how kids would do better with teachers who taught in their native language?

How about how these two different groups struggle to learn from the same teacher and worse, how they might have trouble tolerating each others' questions to the teacher? Can you see this?

Speaking of struggling, can you see why Math and Hard Sciences would appeal more to the fussy kids while Social Sciences and political discussions would appeal more to the fuzzy kids? And why fussy kids would feel more at home with fact based learning like historical time lines, algebraic formulas, and natural laws, while the fuzzy kids would feel more comfortable with questions like, "is there a proof there was a King Arthur," or "what are the benefits of having a site on My Space," and "what was the new girl's name and is she seeing anyone?"

Beginning to get the gist of where all this is leading? Believe me, this fractal is a big deal in school. Moreover, even if you are getting the gist of what I'm saying, like most of the fractals I've shown you so far, this one is both more complicated and more simple than you might at first think. Certainly until you learn to see yourself and those around you on this continuum. At which point, you'll realize how many times this fractal has and is affecting your life. And the lives of the children around you. Both positively and negatively. And especially in class rooms.

Reconciling these differences, between the fussy and fuzzy kids, could make our children's educations a whole lot better. A whole magnitude better, in fact. Again though, this depends largely on you and I learning to see this fractal. Are you ready for me to show you more?

Why Does Media Idealize Life?

Speaking of reconciliations, one of the deepest questions I've ever had to resolve was, "Why does media idealize life?" Know a kid with Asperger's asked me this question. A very fussy kid.

So what would make a kid ask such a question? I asked him, and he told me he has trouble not taking literally what he sees on television. Can you imagine? Television as "the way is it." The literal truth with no exaggerations. Ha!

To this fellow then, what he sees in the media is a true and accurate reflection of what is out there in the world. Factual truths about the way people live. Can you imagine? And can you further imagine how hard it is to live inside this kind of a belief system?

Know he came to ask me this question only after he had had a huge aha; that his taking things literally had been a large part of what had kept him from having friends. How so? Here's an example.

Having learned the official version of what stop signs are, he told me he frequently yells at people for coming to less than a full stop. Even the people in his car. Even his own mother. Can you imagine how this affects his relationships? And yes, I know the drill. Or should I say, drivel. That kids with Asperger's suffer from social deficits. Okay. Yes. But what is beneath these social deficits? Broken brain tissue? Bad parenting? No. Fussy language in a fuzzy world.

You want to see this as true for yourself. Try asking one of these kids why they believe these things. For instance, you know why this fellow believed this about stop signs? Because he saw what they were in a television commercial urging safe driving. Once. He saw this commercial once!

Honestly now, have you ever not come to a full stop at a stop sign? The truth? A lot of us have. Wrongly, perhaps. And yes, I know, we shouldn't do this. My the point is though, did you then feel like you had committed a horrible crime? If so, I bet you can guess which end of the fussy / fuzzy continuum you lean towards.

Know the folks on the other end of the continuum are probably no better when they say things like that everyone does this kind of thing. You know, "Breaking laws is no big deal. Especially when it's something everyone does anyway. Like spitting on the side walk. Or walking on the grass. What's the big deal."

What's the big deal? That half the world thinks this way while a whole bunch of folks do not. It's amazing we get along at all with each other.

Stop signs aside, can you imagine feeling strong urges to sternly admonish people simple from having seen a single television commercial? Including admonishing your own mother?

Know this same fellow told me he had been similarly affected by the Keep America Beautiful, "Crying Indian" commercial. In this case, he told he would never forgot how, at the end, the indian looked right into his eyes. Right into his eyes and into no one else's! Can you imagine?

Okay. So he was seven years old at the time and that commercial probably ranks up there with Life Cereal's, "Mikie likes it" and Fritoy Lays', "Bet 'cha can't eat just one." Still, can you imagine taking a commercial so literally that you felt responsible for all the world's litter problems! How about if you feared you'd become physically addicted to Lays potato chips by eating just one. Talk about fussy. And yes, I'm sure some folks do feel this way. But still.

All kidding aside, my point here is that fussy kids take what they see and hear literally, word for word, while fussy kids barely notice most of what is being said. Let alone take it to heart.

Applying this to learning in classrooms, can you imagine how differently these two groups of kids (the fussy kids and the fuzzy kids) experience political discussions (proven history versus personal appearance).

Or scientific announcements. The fussy kid. "We've found the gene for excessive eye glass fondling." The fuzzy kid. "We expect to find a cure for video game addiction by decades' end."

Or even the differences between simple things like learning to write the alphabet.

The fussy kid: "Your making your "A's" wrong, Robbie. There are no serifs on those verticals."

The fuzzy kid: "Screw off, fussy. I love curling my "S's" and "P's," and wow, look at how nice my name looks in script!"

Fussy and fuzzy even applies to how kids hear teachers' disciplining them.

Teacher: "Please sit in your seat, Robert. I'm telling you for the tenth time." Fussy kid: "No it's only seven times."

Teacher: "Please sit in your seat, Robert. I'm telling you for the tenth time." Fuzzy kid: "What's the big deal. It's more comfortable on the floor. And besides, my pants are making the floor cleaner."

Fussy and fuzzy. The two perspectives. The most basic elements in all of human language.

Intellectual Cues Versus Social Cues

Now let's look at this chapter's drawing, starting with the obvious; that it is not a normal continuum. What I'm saying is, normal continuums are a single line, whereas this continuum folds back on itself.

Know that all fractal continuums fold back on themselves. Otherwise they are not fractal. Unfortunately, this quality alone can make understanding these kinds of fractals difficult. So what can you do?

Know that the secret to understanding these kinds of continuums is to confine your attention to the part of the circle which exists above the two orange dots. The normal part of the continuum. If you do (and if, in your head, you unfold this part of the circle into a straight line, you'll see a normal continuum. And if you now do this with this chapter's fractal, you'll see a traditional continuum which represents the range of human communication, from fussy to fuzzy.

As you now know, I'm calling, the "Continuum of Lingual Specificity." What does this continuum represent?

Basically, it refers to a continuum ranging from the kids who make words and verbs king (fussy) to the kids who make smiles and body language king (fuzzy).

In one sense, then, this continuum determines children's internal comfort levels in classroom settings. Their natural leanings towards either verbal and non verbal skills. Or toward intellectual cues versus social cues. Or between "what I say" and "what I mean."

In another sense, it determines how comfortable these children are during social interactions. Certainly in classrooms. And in particular, with peers. Especially when the conversation includes non verbal skills, like innuendo, and idioms, and social inference.

Thus if a child's style of thinking and speaking tends toward the verbal, fussy side of the continuum, then he or she will love learning facts, like historical time lines, but miss most of the social content of this history. In other words, this child will have no idea nor interest in learning how crowed it felt to be on Columbus' ships. Let alone how hard it must have been to not fight with each other.

These kids will also be more comfortable sitting in rows and looking straight ahead than in small group circles where they can face each other. They will probably feel very few urges to talk to the kid sitting next to them.

They will also prefer learning Spanish grammar to parroting everyday Spanish phrases, and will struggle with spontaneity and impromptu acts versus things wherein the rules have been made explicit.

On the other hand, if a child's lingual specificity leans mostly toward the non verbal fuzzy end of the continuum, then this child will love connecting with classmates but will hate memorizing facts and learning rules. Poetry discussion and Pythagoras' life. Good. Learning English grammar and memorizing times tables. Bad.

Which means these children will love sitting in small groups where they can laugh and talk and see each other. They'll also feel frequent urges to turn and talk to the kid sitting next to them. They'll also have to be reminded again and again not to do this.

The class trip? Yes. The math test? No. An athletic event? Yes. A debate team? No.

Are you beginning to see how big this fussy / fuzzy thing is in schools?

Closing Comments

Have I made this sound like the Continuum of Lingual Specificity is merely a better way to understand peer groups? This it is. However, even within peer groups, the fussy / fuzzy fractal will be a big influence, in that it will largely determine who speaks for the group.

Then too, if you've been noticing the kinds of things I'm saying this fractal influences in kids, then you may have realized how it affects us all in ways far beyond the way our kids speak and think.

For instance, in general, adults who tend toward fussiness tend to explore religious theologies and scientific principles, whereas folks who tend toward fuzziness tend to explore experiential spiritual practices scientific discoveries.

Thus, this same fractal can represent the range from "tends toward spirituality" to "tends toward scientific." Or "tends to like poetry" to "mostly likes science fiction."

Even within these categories, this fractal divides people. For instance, fussy folks would tend to like Asimov more than Heinlein (two science fiction writers), whereas fuzzy folks would tend to prefer listening to the Dalai Lama over Billy Graham (no introductions necessary).

In a way then, we could call what fussy people do Social IQ and what fussy people do Academic IQ. Comfortable in social settings versus comfortable in class room settings.

Regardless of what we call these two extremes, the only thing to know here is that these two ways of speaking determine who our children will best learn from. Our children will learn best from teachers who speak their language.

How about you? Have you seen yourself in any of this? For instance, do you speak "fussy" to your wife but your wife speaks "fuzzy" to you? The details of the car repair versus I had no car on Thursday complaints?

More important, does this drive you crazy and so, create a rift in your marriage? And do your kids align themselves against you because your spouse speaks more like them?

It seems, we have a lot to learn from fractals, and in particular, from this one. Certainly, with regard to how we educate our children. And definitely as a possible way to understand those we don't understand.

Until next chapter then. I hope you are all well.

Steven


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