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Nouns, Angles, and Street Maps: Concrete Foundations Beneath Brilliant Abstraction

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Nouns, Angles, and Street Maps: Concrete Foundations Beneath Brilliant Abstraction

by Jennifer Cook O’Toole
Autism Asperger’s Digest | July/August 2013

Noun. A word that strikes passion in your souls and electricity in your mind. What, not really? OK, I fully realize that my love of grammar is not exactly shared with the general population. But to me, as an Aspie, it is a beautiful set of rules and patterns that governs the presentation of the intangible: communication, ideas, feelings. It’s a format which, when mastered, can be toyed with to create subtlety, nuance, and sheer poetry. So as far as I’m concerned, nouns are rather fabulous.
Now, don’t worry. This glimpse into the spectrum isn’t about parts of speech; it’s about the way we, on the spectrum, yearn to learn. Just bear with me through the grammar (and a classic Montessori lesson) for a moment longer.

Concrete Nouns

One afternoon I placed a small basket in front of my daughter, which she promptly fingered, tracing the woven straw, then jingling the tiny scraps of folded paper to see how much force it would take to toss some overboard. “OK, Munchkin,” I smiled. “We’re about to play Fetch. I’d like you to take one slip of paper out of that basket, read it to yourself, and then go and get me whatever is named.” She giggled but followed the plan, retrieving a sock, a train track, a quarter, an egg, a houseplant, and so on until there were no more slips of paper remaining.
“Great!” I praised her. “You’ve just been able to read the nomen of each of those objects and follow my directions.”
Her forehead creased. “I read the what?”
“You read the nomen,” I replied. “That’s the Latin word for name—kind of like in Spanish, someone might ask your nombre, or in French, they’d want to know your nom. Those words come from the word nomen, and so does our English word, noun. That’s because a noun really is just a name. Sock, egg, plant: they’re just common names we’ve given to some of the objects around us.”
She considered this for a moment, and countered, “Except those are just things. People have names.” And I agreed, she did have a name, Maura. But she also had other names: girl, child, person, human, daughter, sister. If two people, one from Japan and one from Argentina, were to look at her, they would both see the same thing—a real, touchable, breathing, three-dimensional person, whom they could describe with spoken sounds (called words). But neither would understand the other’s sound patterns, and they most certainly couldn’t read each other’s writing representing those words, yet all of the abstract sounds and scribbles represented the same, very real person they saw.

Abstract Nouns and Beyond

Then I presented another basket of words. Given the same instructions to read and then fetch, she opened a slip of paper and stopped, bewildered. “I can’t get this,” she drawled slowly.
“Oh no?” I asked. “Hmmm, well, try another one.”
And she did—twice more, only to be befuddled. “Mom,” she sighed, slightly annoyed. “I can’t go get you love. And I can’t go grab joy or friendship.”
“Why?” I asked. “They’re the names of things, too, aren’t they?” Of course they were, she admitted, but you can’t carry love or put joy into a tote bag. No, I agreed, because these things were untouchable, hazily defined, conceptually debatable, culturally malleable, and utterly impossible to pin down. They were—and are—abstract.
Concrete nouns, I explained, represent things that are tangible, observable, touchable. She, herself, was tangible. What nature had wrought, her existence, was inarguable fact. She is “concrete.” However, there are other very real things that make an impact on the world but cannot be seen, tasted, or carried. They are represented by abstract nouns and are much more ambiguous, variable, and “fuzzy.” You can’t see them, but wars, religions, and politics prove that their impact is often more profound than the concrete people and things we name.
Now, what does that lovely grammar lesson have to do with anything? Simple. For those of us on the spectrum, abstract nouns are painfully difficult to define and are often the greatest sources of blunders in friendships, love, employment, and sense of self-worth. To give our Asperkids and spectrum kids a chance at success in the realms of the abstract, we must first introduce even the most intangible concepts via concrete experiences.

Montessori Magic

Maria Montessori believed that “what the hand does, the mind remembers.” Concrete materials make concepts real and, therefore, easily internalized. For any child to develop deep foundational concepts, concrete hands-on learning materials are ideal; like no other method, sensory-based, real beginnings optimize eventual comprehension of abstract concepts. Then, once those ideas are internalized, the “tangibles” (e.g., sandpaper letters, rearrangeable triangle pattern blocks) are no longer necessary. But by first introducing information concretely, we can present new degrees of abstraction and complexity as the child shows himself to be ready.
All developing minds first learn through sensory input: our most primal method of absorption and observation. That’s the best-case educational scenario for any child. But for our children, it’s an absolute necessity throughout life. Knock into a block tower and it will fall. That necessity for sensory learning is also why spectrum kids’ sensory defensiveness can inhibit the creation of necessary learning foundations. If you’re too put-off by the feel of rice, how can you fill up a funnel and watch gravity in action, or figure out how to unclog the traffic jam of grains?
Socrates said, “That which is held in the hand is then held in the heart” (and I would add, in the head). In order for a theoretical physicist to wonder about the impact of gravity on time distortion, does he not first have to see the stars with his own eyes?

Geometry for Asperkids

Most of us remember geometry being taught as an abstract series of rules, theorems, and propositions presented alongside figures 1, 2, and 3 meant to be memorized by students who couldn’t care less about the structural integrity of a hexagon. But geometry—like cooking and chemistry, math and musical scales—is actually rooted in our concrete world. You’d just never know it from the way most of us are asked to learn geometry concepts.
As a “Mensa-smart” (undiagnosed) Asperkid who relied on rote memorization (rather than comprehension) in geometry class, I get this to my core. Allow an Asperkid to pin strings or wooden sticks into parallel lines, cross them at random with transverse lines (i.e., with toothpicks), and then take some angle measurements. Once the child calculates the sums, you will have to explain nothing about transverse lines and supplementary angles. The child will discover patterns for himself and, in doing so, begin to notice other if–then patterns in history, social behaviors, game-playing, and even basic self-care skills.
Many famous people, confirmed or suspected spectrumites, are known for their capacity for unparalleled abstraction, luscious creativity (Emily Dickinson), radically complex theory (Albert Einstein), mechanical tenacity (Henry Ford), and endearingly witty humor (Charles Schultz). It’s just that our black-or-white, show-me-don’t-tell-me minds require the independent observation of patterns, trends, and possibilities from real things, not from someone else’s proclamations.

Getting to the Goal

We on the spectrum live in a world that can feel terrifying in its random cruelty, uncertainty, and inconsistency. That’s why we are, so often, aggravated by changes in structure, routine, and rules. We are not being obstinate for the sake of being obstinate; we are scared. And that is why, it seems to me, that the most difficult—and most important—thing for our loving families, friends, therapists, and teachers to convince us of is that there is “more than one way to get to OK,” whether that’s folding towels, solving a math equation, or packing a school bag.
In our home, I usually preteach academic concepts to my children before school teachers introduce them, ensuring that in-class sensory distractions or social anxiety doesn’t cost my Asperkids an entire instruction. Last week, my six-year-old son eagerly requested a new “Momma math” lesson (inspired by a biography of Albert Einstein!). However, he was resisting the same instruction at school because “the teacher does it differently” (actually, that’s not really so, but my son perceives any difference as major).
Much to his surprise, I began the math lesson by pulling out a local street map. Could he please, I requested, locate our home (he did), and then locate the grocery store (no trouble). Next, I produced three crayons, and asked him (first with his finger) to find three different routes from our house to the store: one he should trace in blue, one in red, and one in green. Again, no trouble.
After he had drawn, I “infused” the lesson into his body, asking him to close his eyes and just feel as I guided his hand along each colored path. Then, he did it again, eyes open, and indeed, each route he had traced led from our driveway to the same grocery store. When asked, my little navigator agreed that yes, even though some ways were longer than others, they were all “right” because they’d all get us where we needed to go.
All of a sudden, Mom broke the silence with a theatrical shriek. “Eek!” I yelled. “There’s a flood on Blue Road! We can’t get through, and we really need toilet paper! What can we do?”
“Mom,” he smiled. “Don’t freak out. Just take Green Road or Red Road.”
“Oh, OK,” I sighed. And then suddenly, I burst out again, “Oh no! Green Road just had a telephone pole fall across it. The road is closed!”
“Mom,” he shook his head. “So what? We can still take Red Road.” With dramatic nervousness on my part (and a whole lot of giggling on his part), I peppered him with the following: would we still get the toilet paper? Would we still make it to our goal?
Yes, he assured me, as long as we had a way to get there, we’d be fine. (“Aha!” moment ahead.)
“So, Sean,” I summarized, “if we understand what we need to get (toilet paper, answer to a question, or whatever), it doesn’t matter how we get to where we’re headed?”
“No!” he patted my hand. “We’ll still get what we need. Actually, we’re lucky. We’d be in trouble if we only knew one way!”
I smiled. “Hmmm…do you think maybe that’s true of other things, too? Like the math lesson at school?” He gave me a quizzical look. “Well, I was just thinking that maybe, kind of like with the toilet paper, the more routes or ways you have to get there, the more likely you are to get what you need.”
And then I got the look every parent knows, the “Oh! I see what you were doing there, Lady!” Yup. Sneaky me. A street map and toilet paper had just led him to reject the black-or-white, my-way-or-the-highway mentality and acknowledge that just maybe knowing another way of arriving at the same destination was not only OK, it was savvy.

We all need to be part of what we study in order to truly understand, whether that’s grammar (yay!), cosmology, art, animal husbandry, weather patterns, or social skills. To give your spectrum kiddo practical, academic, physical, social, and emotional skills, you must demonstrate, explain, and repeat and be sure to provide every notion in a concrete, measurable, observable format. Neurotypicals can also learn that way. We, on the spectrum, need to learn that way, to communicate that way (through writing, art, or construction), to play that way. We can and will sing, leap, laugh, and dream without limits, but before we can venture into the conceptual, before we can consider the abstract and wonder, we must stand squarely upon the concrete—and know.

Jennifer Cook O’Toole graduated with honors from Brown University and has since studied at the Graduate School of Social Work at Columbia University and Graduate School of Education at Queens University. She is the author of three books, including The Asperkid’s Launch Pad: Home Design to Empower Everyday Superheroes (Jessica Kingsley Publishers, 2013).

Copyright © Autism Asperger’s Digest. 2013. All Rights Reserved. Distribution via print is prohibited without written permission of publisher.

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