Generally on Generalization

Not only was it difficult for him to see that the generic symbol “dog” took in all the dissimilar individuals of all shapes and sizes, it irritated him that the “dog” of three-fourteen in the afternoon, seen in profile, should be indicated by the same noun as the dog at three-fifteen seen frontally.”  Jorge Luis Borges

Ireneo Funes, created by Borges, character in the story Funes Memorious , rejected, as too general, Locke’s concept of a language in which each INDIVIDUAL thing would have its own name.  Although Locke entertained the idea of such a language, he dismissed it quickly and for a good reason.  Imagine that each and every spoon in the set of 12 came with its own name.  Imagine all the spoons in the world having their names.  Imagine, parts of those spoons claiming the right to their own labels….

In the late nineteen nineties, I attended a short workshop with Gina Green on generalization.

I don’t remember this workshop too well because at that time, I was not concerned with generalization.  It is true, that a couple of years before that workshop, I had considered the possibility that Robert’s difficulties with receptive language might be a result of the his over-selective hearing. I thought, it was possible, that because of differences in pitch, volume, or length of sounds Robert heard the same word completely differently.  The fact that for six months Robert could click on one of the 100 pictures when computer voice ordered him to do so, but was not able to point to one of two objects when his therapist (or I) asked him to, seemed to confirm over-selectivity of Robert’s hearing. I had noticed also that Robert had been able to differentiate between the sound of my car’s engine and the sounds of all other cars passing by our townhouse.

By the time,  I came to Gina’s Green lecture, I was  concerned neither with Robert’s over-selectivity nor his lack of ability to generalize language concepts.  That is why, I only remember the most basic things from that workshop.

1. When teaching receptive labels, for instance  “table” it is important to have two or three pictures of different tables.  If only one image of a table  is presented, the child might learn that “table” is always round, has the color of fresh pine, and its legs are shaped like thin cylinders. Thus, the child might not recognize that the rectangular, dark cherry  object is also a table.

2. I remember how relieved I was that Robert learned those first 50+ labels from the computer program First Words I and II  in which two pictures represented the same object.  For instance to represent “an apple” there was one picture with red and one with green apple. Fifteen years later, I can only speculate how Robert’s learning of labels would be affected if  each generic symbol was represented by only one exemplar.

3. I was told, either during that workshop or by a parent of a child with autism (in one of the support groups), about a boy with autism who learned meaning of two labels (let’s make them “duck” and ” cow” ) by first separating multiple photographs of different cows  and different ducks by placing them in two boxes.

4. I remember that the labels to be taught had to be chosen carefully, so their names wouldn’t sound similar and so they would not  look alike either.  Starting with goose and a duck would not be wise. Asking for “duck” versus “dog” was not recommended either.

When I attended the conference, I was not yet aware of all the circumstances in which lack of ability to generalize language would gravely affect Robert’s learning, understanding, and his communication.

As I have been teaching Robert,  I was confronted many times by the fact, that he didn’t know what,I believed, he had learned before and thus should had known.  The matter of fact, only when I started this blog and analyzed some of the difficulties I encountered in teaching, I understood the nature of Robert’s problems and limits of my presentations.  In other words, I was teaching Robert what “apple” was by showing him always a GREEN apple.

I did not realize that for Robert, the meaning of some  abstract concepts depended on always changing circumstances in which the meanings of those concepts were evoked.

That was not a precise expression.  For most of us, the meaning of any term changes slightly when the environment changes.  I suspect that Robert  lacks the  ability to make that adjustment, and thus needs a new word to fill the gap.  That word, unfortunately, either doesn’t exist or Robert doesn’t know it yet.

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