Friday, April 12, 2013

Conversations about conversation

One of the courses I'm taking this semester is Discourse Analysis, not because I felt it had a tremendous amount to do with what I want to study, but because I think it's important to have a varied intellectual toolbox and it's something I'd kind of been interested in, in a roundabout way. For those who haven't encountered it before, discourse analysis is a practice that pulls from a bunch of different humanities disciplines and looks at all manner of discourse, which is basically any information transferred between people (media, laws, emails, forms, recordings of conversation, non-fiction, fiction, discourse represented in drama, corporate texts, PR docs, etc.). It does so to find patterns and determine what the discourse is actually doing, along with what it says it's doing, and figure out how it accomplishes that end.

As with all classes, there has to be an end project, and DA's end project is a piece of discourse analysis. I had a hard time choosing anything, but in the end I ended up making an observation about how important the mechanics of conversation were for people who, for example, have ASD (autism spectrum disorders) and how they aren't really used pedagogically. We talk about conversation skills, but we don't tend to link that to examination or methodology of how it all works and why, which is actually the sort of explanation that tends to work for people with Aspergers, for example. In addition, the research I've done on the topic has thus far been unable to turn up any discussion of discussion as seen or understood by individuals with autism. It focuses on what they don't do in conversation, what they should do in conversation, what they do too much off, and how to fix all of these things. They analyze, but don't ask what the person at the center of all this thinks.*

To that end, I decided to interview my son, Alisdair, and have a conversation about conversations and see what he thought about the whole process. I interviewed him and his brother, Will, starting with some basic questions, and then I transcribed the end result. This post is an effort on my part to sort through the responses I got and see how I'm moving forward with it.

It's tempting to start analyzing the phrasing and conversational movement of his dialogue, but examination of ASD individuals' speech has been done. I want instead to focus on the content, which was singular (and particularly insightful as compared to his brother). Al is 15 now, and was diagnosed with Aspergers Syndrome when he was 9. He has had behavioral therapy (which focused largely on identifying emotion and using coping strategies for it) and one session of social skills workshops the summer before he entered sixth grade, as well as being part of an inclusion program in grade school and a pull-out program in middle school. Even with this, the focus of his training has not been on social skills but rather on academic and life skills: executive function, etc.

In reading over the transcript, one of the key factors was how aware of conversation he was. He preferred it to writing because of the addition of tone of voice and facial features, taking advantage of its multi-channel capacity for conveying exact meanings. He was concerned about multiple meanings and the need to ask for clarification, as well as how much easier it was to talk to people he knew better so that he understood how they thought and could apply that to the interpretation of meaning as well. He referred to the "rules" of conversation, and how one could tell if your conversational partner was feeling awkward or embarrassed, as well as how being as precise as you can in your meanings is something you do for the people you're with, while at the same time trying to stay within the limits of appropriate vocabulary and expression for your audience.

When asking Will the same questions, he showed no awareness of the mechanics of conversation or his role in it. He recognized that there were times when it was awkward and that when he felt pressured in it, he tended to speak randomly in order to change what was going on -- trying to take control of the conversation by changing its focus to performance rather than communication (my words, not his). Although he is, by all accounts, more comfortable with conversation than his brother and more skilled at it overall in terms of fluidity and perception, his facility is intuitive, not something he consciously understands. Al gets it intellectually and works at putting it into practice, but that alone doesn't overcome his blind spots. Then again, with a greater understanding of how conversation works and how we take positions within it and receive information, he might be able to integrate that into his approach as well. 

I think, therefore, that I'm going to focus on the understanding of conversation on his part, with the takeaway being that since individuals with ASDs tend to build a model of social interaction they can copy (or recognize as patterns and variations), additional pedagogy in conversation analysis can likely provide additional help in refining their approaches.

Thanks for being my sounding board, blogworld. You rock.

*To be fair, some of this is because most of the literature to this point focuses on younger children. Books on the problem are addressed to parents, teachers, and medical professionals, not to the kids themselves -- or, significantly, not to older teens or adults who have these issues. That trend is changing as we realize it's not something even high-functioning people grow out of, but that's a slow process.