Breathing Life into Words

Filed Under (Communication, Language) by Estee on 03-12-2013

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Adam has been reading words since he’s been 11 months old. When he reads aloud, it sounds as if Adam has weaker reading skills, but his typing is always better than reading out loud. Yet there is a difference in how we come to language, and I suppose I’m more inclined these days to post-structuralism in the way words relate to other words when I think of relativism and how, as we hear about some autistic folks, that words can have an associational meaning. For many people, words relate to an event, a sound, an occurrence. They are associational; sometimes they are sensory where metaphor works best. The point is, language is just a system. It limits experience that can not always be translated into words. For Adam, words are very important. They can mean life and death since most people would not bother to understand Adam’s language outside of “behavioural” contexts. As David Abram says, we are conditioned to speech. We miss the sensory properties and ways of knowing outside of speech and language; it is very hard for Adam and other people who come to language differently (if they can at all), to translate experience into words. Decoding and reading words can be different than feeling. I think that we have to view language more creatively and recognize that language does not denote intelligence – although we live in a society that still believes it does. Language is a half-formed tool, and in a political sense, it excludes many folks who do not come to the dominant, or ordinary, language as easily as some.

Adam and I were reading last night. I asked him to read out loud, but unless he uses words in the way he uses them (which is why typing is useful in many ways), it’s difficult to know what he knows about a word. So, as we were reading, I quickly ripped off strips of paper and we not only spelled words (which he can do well), but we made them come alive. The word around when literally around Adam’s head. The word “through” went through his fingers. “Wind” moved violently (fanned by me with a large book) and a pictorial leaf “spinned” and “tumbled” to the ground. “Whisper” came close to his ear and whispered “I love you,” and the “breeze” gentle moved the word on the strip of paper in the air. Adam wanted to read more. He grabbed book after book off the shelf as he read out loud, while we both made the words come alive for hours.

This is akin to when we hear parents labeling items all around the house which makes words “functional.” Yet words are more than that. How can we make words sensory? How do we make them experiential? How can we role-reverse the word? God may have breathed the word into Adam, but he forgot that we have to also breathe life into words. And still, words are never enough.

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About Me


ESTÉE KLAR

I’m a PhD candidate at York University, Critical Disability Studies, with a multi-disciplinary background in the arts as a curator and writer. I am the Founder of The Autism Acceptance Project (www.taaproject.com), and an enamoured mother of my only son who lives with the autism label. I like to write about our journey, critical issues regarding autism in the area of human rights, law, and social justice, as well as reflexive practices in (auto)ethnographic writing about autism.