Aspergers and Chunking

I was reading Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined by Scott Barry Kaufman. I came across a section about Aspergers. The more I’ve read about it over the years the more I suspect that I have some form of it.*

A theory on Autism is that it is strong focus on details which can lead to not seeing the forest for the trees, but if high functioning enough this can be compensated for. The Aspie takes in so many details that this can lead to distraction and cognitive overload. There are two primary ways of dealing with this. First, Aspies might limit their interactions and narrow their focus to create a more manageable space in which to think and to feel more comfortable. Second, Aspies often learn to chunk information.

The second method is what I learned as a child when I was living in Deerfield, Illinois (a wealthy Jewish suburb of Chicago; more on this below). I was having trouble with reading and I stuttered. I had a hard time saying what a word was or even recalling the names of my friends, but I could describe what I meant when I wasn’t stuttering and the only reason I was stuttering was because I couldn’t recall.

I went to speech therapy, but even the therapist wasn’t sure my precise problem. This therapist and my mom, who also was a speech therapist, went to a talk given by Diane J. German from Northwestern University who maybe was working on her PhD dissertation at the time (my mom thinks this was in 1982 since I was diagnosed in first grade when I was 6 years old). She is now a professor emeritus at National Louis University. At the time, German was working on a new test for word recall issues. Here is an article about her work:

“The look on these children’s faces captures the problem in the most compelling way,” says Diane German, the principal researcher, who specializes in disorders of word-finding and a special education professor at National-Louis University in Chicago, Illinois. “They really struggle when they have to read a simple word like ‘nest’ out loud. Some grimace, others look stuck. Some just blurt out an answer that’s almost always wrong. Yet when asked to point to the same word on a page, they almost always get it right. Clearly they’ve got a problem and need help, but it’s not that they lack reading skills.”

One child in the study, previously diagnosed with these “word-finding” difficulties, couldn’t say “cocoon” as he tried to read a story aloud. When he got to the word, he stumbled and added, “You know, it is that brown thing hanging in the tree.”

“Clearly, this child had managed to ‘read’ the word to himself and comprehend it, or he could never have come up with that kind of description,” explains psychologist Rochelle Newman, co-author of the study and a University of Maryland professor of hearing and speech sciences. “He just couldn’t retrieve the sound pattern of the word.”

(Another piece by her: “Ask Yourself, Are You Doing Enough for Your Learners with Word Finding Difficulties?)

They immediately recognized that German was talking about my issues. German was looking to do a study. So, my mom did some of the testing for German’s study, but my mom recalls German coming to our house and testing me herself. That is how I became one of the kids used as a subject in her study. And that was the beginning of how I, unlike so many other kids, escaped the trap of sub-par remedial education and a life of low expectations.

My mom and the therapist learned about this new field of word recall issues. Before that time, no one was discussing any of this and speech therapists weren’t being taught about it. It was serendipity that I was beginning school at the time and nearby where this new field was being developed. With this new knowledge, my mom worked with my therapist to help me with word recall (along with a learning disability therapist, Diane Redfield, who taught me to read).

One of the things that helped me the most was the information chunking. My mom explained that this had to do with not just grouping similar words. It has to do with looking at words from every angle in order to understand its different aspects. It is a shifting of perspective and a breaking down into component parts. This is what allows word groupings to be useful. Grouping words goes hand in hand with chunking information. The more kinds of groupings and chunkings the increased capacity to think and communicate clearly.

I had an example of this just last night. I was thinking of early 20th century anarchists and I was trying to recall one specific person. From the word ‘anarchist’, I thought of women’s clinic. Then from that I connected to the last name Goldman. Once I had the last name, I could recall the first name and so had the full name: Emma Goldman. I couldn’t just pull the name out by itself. I had to go through a process to get to it.

That isn’t my only method. I also use something similar to chunking that is more on a feeling level. I get an overall sense of something, a person or an idea or whatever. Once I have that sense, I just have to switch into the right state of mind and slowly feel into it. Anything I’m familiar with has a feeling-sense associated with it. This form of recall isn’t always efficient, but it works when I can’t use a direct chain of connections. This feeling-sense is very useful in general, though, for it allows me to chunk info in larger ways and helps me in feeling out patterns by sensing resonances.

All of this fits into why I’ve come to suspect I have Aspergers or something very similar. The one thing that demonstrated I wasn’t low IQ as a child was my ability to see patterns. This is also a talent of many Aspies. It is because Aspies see things in chunks of details that they are able to more flexibly scan for patterns. It is precisely where various chunks crossover that a whole begins to form, but this is building from the bottom up.

I do this in my thinking and writing. When taken to its extreme, I call them thought-webs. Connections form, connections build upon connections, and then a sense of meaning emerges from that. It is an organic process of synthesizing, rather than analyzing, although analyzing may follow as a secondary process. It is looking to the data to speak for itself, finding the harmony between the seemingly diparate.

It has its strengths and weaknesses. It is greatest strength is for research. My Asperger-like extraverted intuition (MBTI Ne) goes off in a million directions finding all the details until my brain is overloaded. Then begins the filtering and consolidating of it all into a unique synthesis, but that last part can be a doozy. I sometimes never get past the brain overload.

* More recently, I’ve learned of specific language impairment. It can have behavioral symptoms similar to autism, but it’s a different condition and much more common. It’s another possibility in describing my own difficulties, as much of it fits my experience.

As a side note, there is a reason I mentioned above that Deerfield is a wealthy Jewish suburb of Chicago. Here is an interesting detail of Deerfield’s history (from Wikipedia):

“In 1959, when Deerfield officials learned that a developer building a neighborhood of large new homes planned to make houses available to African Americans, they issued a stop-work order. An intense debate began about racial integration, property values, and the good faith of community officials and builders. For a brief time, Deerfield was spotlighted in the national news as “the Little Rock of the North.” Supporters of integration were denounced and ostracized by angry residents. Eventually, the village passed a referendum to build parks on the property, thus putting an end to the housing development. Two model homes already partially completed were sold to village officials. The remaining land lay dormant for years before it was developed into what is now Mitchell Pool and Park and Jaycee Park. At the time, Deerfield’s black population was 12 people out of a total population of 11,786. This episode in Deerfield’s history is described in But Not Next Door by Harry and David Rosen, both residents of Deerfield.
“Since the early 1980s, however, Deerfield has seen a large influx of Jews and, more recently, Asians and Greeks, giving the community a more diverse ethnic makeup.”

I guess it was a wealthy Jewish suburb of Chicago that has become a wealthy Jewish, Asian and Greek suburb of Chicago.

I can tell you one thing for certain. Few poor kids, especially poor minorities, are privileged in the way I was by my early education opportunities. I went to a public school in Deerfield, but that is way different than going to a public school in the inner city of Chicago. If I had been a poor black kid in a poor black neighborhood, I would have been designated low IQ and that would have been the end of it.

How many poor black kids failing in school are as intelligent as I am? The evidence points to the answer being many.

It is one thing to experience something like a learning disability or Aspergers. It is a whole other matter to deal with a learning disability or Aspergers while dealing with poverty and prejudice.

Even ignoring racism, classism by itself is a powerful form of prejudice. My mom was raised working class and she raised us with a working class sensibility. This meant she dressed us working class. My older brother was ridiculed in the Deerfield public school. It scarred him for life and it contributed to his hatred of school ever after. Part of that had to do with our having previously lived in Bellefontaine, Ohio which is a factory town at the edge of Appalachia. Apparently, we had picked up a bit of Appalachian speech, in that the rich kids in Deerfield ridiculed Clay for saying ‘zeero’ when meaning ‘zero’.

It was a clear giveaway to our class background. So, even though we were technically upper middle class because my dad was a factory manager, we were new money upper middle class and the other kids knew it. I was, at that time, fortunate enough to have been too young to understand and maybe, because of my Aspergers, too socially oblivious to care.

If such minor forms of prejudice could have such powerful impact on my brother, imagine what more severe (and systemic) forms of prejudice will do to a child. To this day, my brother remains traumatized from his childhood experience of class prejudice and, sadly, has internalized it in ridiculing his ‘white trash’ neighbors in the small working class town he now lives in. Racism and classism, they are shitty mentalities that cause much damage, but unless you’ve been on the receiving end of prejudice it is hard to understand and appreciate.

* * *

Below is part of the section from Ungifted where Aspergers is discussed.

pp. 223-226:

An alternative perspective, which has gained a lot of research support in recent years, is that autism is merely a different way of processing incoming information. 23 Individuals with ASD have a greater attention to detail and tend to adopt a bottom-up strategy— they first perceive the parts of an object and then build up to the whole. 24 As Uta Frith puts it, people with autism have difficulty “seeing the forest for the trees.” There is neurological evidence that the unique mind of the person with ASD is due in part to an excessive number of short-distance, disorganized local connections in the prefrontal cortex (required for attention to detail) along with a reduced number of long-range or global connections necessary for integrating information from widespread and diverse brain regions. 25 As a result, people with high-functioning autism tend to have difficulty switching attention from the local to the global level. 26

This sometimes plays itself out in social communications. People with ASD focus on details in the environment most people find “irrelevant,” which can lead to some awkward social encounters. When people with ASD are shown photographs with social information (such as friends chatting) or movie clips from soap operas, their attention is focused much less on the people’s faces and eyes than the background scenery, such as light switches. 27 Differences among toddlers in attention to social speech is a robust predictor of ASD, and social attention differences in preschool lead to a deficit in theory of mind. 28 This is important , considering that an early lack of attention to social information can deprive the developing child of the social inputs and learning opportunities they require to develop expertise in social cognition. 29 It’s likely that from multiple unrewarding social interactions during the course of development, people with ASD learn that social interactions are unrewarding, and retreat even further into themselves.

Kate O’Connor and Ian Kirk argue that the atypical social behaviors found in people with ASD are more likely the result of a processing difference than a social deficit, and may represent a strategy to filter out too much sensory information . 30 Indeed , people with ASD often report emotional confusion during social interactions, in which they interpret expressions, gestures, and body language to mean something different from or even the opposite of what the other person intended. 31 Many people with ASD report that the eye region is particularly “confusing” and “frightening.” 32

Indeed, the eye region is very complex, transmitting a lot of information in a brief time span. For one thing, it’s always in motion (blinking, squinting, saccadic movement, and so on). But the eye region also can depict a wide range of emotions in rapid succession. It’s likely that over the course of many overwhelming interactions with people in the context of other sensory information coming in from the environment, people with ASD learn to look less at the eye region of faces. 33 People with ASD do frequently report being distracted by sensory information in the environment, including background noise, fluorescent light, shiny objects, body movement, and smells. 34

[ . . . ]

One robust finding is that people with ASD have enhanced perceptual functioning. 40 People with ASD tend to perform better than people without ASD symptoms on IQ subtests that involve nonverbal fluid reasoning and the segmentation and reconstruction of novel visual designs. 41 Individuals with ASD also perform better than controls on the Embedded Figures Task (EFT), which requires quick detection of a target within a complex pattern. 42 The ASD tendency to see patterns as collections of details instead of as wholes helps people with ASD to segment and chunk visual information, freeing up visual working memory resources and allowing them to handle a higher perceptual load than typical adults. 43