Signifiers are taken immediately in a chain that organizes them; while the signs of factual language are initially incorporated one by one. Even though autists have reached certain organization of memorized signs, they also often describe their perception as “fragmented”. This characteristic is initially quite evident in children.
“In Amélie’s world it was clear that deduction did not exist, events did not happen, she never tried to ‘know why’ or ‘understand how’. Everything that happened in front of her had nothing to do with her, in fact she didn’t look for it, she didn’t even know it existed. When a story was read to her, she was only capable of accounting for the descriptive aspect of the image she saw, she remembered absolutely everything. The smallest details hindered her memory, but on the other hand she did not put in it any intentionality, no link of cause and effect between what the characters of the story did and the fact that such an event happened” (Donville, 2006, p. 76).
The Asperger autist no longer has a passive attitude towards memorized signs: he is now able to mobilize them to build local coherences. The appropriation of signs is initially made element by element. According to Harrisson (2010), memorization operates on the basis of “isolated data”, or according to Dawson, it is based on “a non-separable element of information” (Mottron, 2004, p.193). In individuals with the most severe level of autism, this element may be made up of words that are not linked, but for Asperger autists, it sometimes takes the form of a local coherence. The register of the elements is more complex than that of photographs: the perception of these themes, Mottron notes, “is not static”, it can be “multimodal (synesthesia) and allows manipulations on the memorized material” (Mottron, 2004, p. 186). It would seem, in fact, that the signs are arranged in sets organized according to each one’s own ways. The perceived coherence of the order of things and their regularities is one of them. Grandin uses another method: she relies on giving a main place to the chronological order ,
to classify her “mental video library”; others resort to the image of a puzzle in permanent construction, others to that of a geographical map, or of a database, etc. It seems necessary to understand that each term occupies a place in a set, comparable to a file, which allows it to relate to other files, and that all this is sufficiently organized so that the subject can find the information.
Many autists describe remembering as reading a mental copy. Grandin proposes a similar analogy recalling “a computer program of graphic animation”, and specifying that its memory is constituted largely by a photographic storage of printed pages.
When I search in my head, I see the photocopy of the page. I can read it like a teleprompter […]. In order to find information in my memory, I have to play the video tape again. Sometimes it’s hard to find some data because It is necessary I try different cassettes until I find the right one, and that takes time. (Grandin, 1997, p. 33).
Of course, if the page has an error, the subject will repeat it systematically. According to the converging testimonies of autists capable of describing their method of functioning, they build “an internal database”, but the data are not “non-hierarchical”; that is to say, Mottron specifies,
that what is important and accessory is not implicitly distinguished. For example, the object and its context are not automatically separated and hierarchized in favor of the object. This is the reason why the change of context may cause a non-recognition of the object, or there may be a non-generalization of something acquired. (Mottron, 2004, p. 191)
Harrisson provides a very detailed description of the specificities of her memory. She models it as a “coherent fragmentation” with the following characteristics:
The register of each data is very precise and is done with a static structure. Each image is meticulously differentiated from the others. All details of each data are retained as they are perceived. Without any nuance. And each data is isolated at the beginning and then classified although it remains, at the same time, independent. The register is comparable to working on a puzzle. At the end, you see all the unique pieces that allow us to see the global picture. The pieces are associated but are not in interaction. The global picture of the puzzle (also known as the “geographical map”) is enlarged as the pieces are enlarged, depending on the number of pieces that can be linked, or the pieces to which a meaning is found to connect them with the others. These small global pictures formed by several fragments of information, very well defined in relation to each other, are merged into a large geographical map for each register. (Harrison, 2010, p. 91).
Michelle Dawson compares the arrival of information in the memory of signs “with the incorporation of a new piece in a puzzle under construction.” According to the intense memorization, and uselessness at rejection, she specifies that “she can’t leave it aside”. Her puzzle is not the chaos to which are faced the most severe autists: she should incorporate every new element “in such a way that the puzzle remains as it was before this new piece, that is, it must be coherent in every possible aspect, direction and meaning” (Mottron, 2004, p. 194). Ouellette retains a similar picture, which he borrows from Atwwod, to describe the slow ordering of memorized signs operated by the high-functioning autistic person.
This work is compared to putting together a puzzle of a thousand pieces whose model is not on the box. With the passing of time some parts are assembled, but the global picture does not yet appear. Then, one ends up having enough “islands” of the puzzle to finally recognize the picture as a whole and all the parts finally find their place. (Ouellette, 2011, p. 181).
He is able to describe with great delicacy the main differences in functioning, distinguishing between that of the non-autistic subject, whose thought is ordered by the master signifier, and that of the autistic subject, who finds it difficult to articulate juxtaposed signs.
In a way, he points out, the neurotypical culture is undulatory, while the Asperger culture is corpuscular. Neurotypical thinking seeks to quickly, almost simultaneously, unite information from different senses and emotions to quickly construct a sense in the world for short-term benefit. […] The Asperger thought deals with this information rather slowly, hence the fact that individuals with Asperger are first interested in details rather than sets. Like a laser beam, their thinking focuses first of all on points. […] An Asperger individual acts like this to let the sense progressively emerge from the slow addition of details. (Ouellette, 2011, p. 184).
The above testimonies point to the fact that the classification inherent in memorized signs develops, not from a grammar or a signifying logic, but from images, or elements, and what unites them. “The continuation of my thoughts is not always logical, but often comes from visual associations” (Tammet, 2006 , p. 85). Everything indicates that the same classification procedures govern the construction of a specific interest. Around the age of 10, on the occasion of the Olympic Games in Seoul, Tammet decided to become an expert in these games. He gave his teacher a file with hundreds of photos of athletes and events, as well as long lists of participants, results, statistics. However, he emphasizes that he organized the collage “according to an exclusively visual logic: athletes in red on the same page, athletes in yellow on another, athletes in white on a fourth, and so on” (Tammet, 2006 , p. 85). The advantage of this method is that it is based on an existing external classification that prevents the autists from facing the difficulty of creating it on their own. Not having the master signifier, it seems to be a visual classification that governs the organization of signs for the autist.
The discreet character of the sign only gives access to a fragmented memorization that some autists, thanks to an intense mnemonic work supported by the visual, are able to make more or less coherent. Non-autistic subjects do not have this difficulty. From the beginning, the elements that structure their thinking and their being are placed in structured sets. The signifiers, according to Saussure, are always trapped in a chain, they are connected in a synchrony governed by the laws of grammar, so that their learning spontaneously carries with it an assimilation of grammar. That is why linguists consider that non-autistic subjects are true “grammatical geniuses” between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four months. At that age the grammatical system that governs their language is fixed. They must carry out a complex ordering that implies a precise analysis of the phonetic segments of the words and their combination, as well as an order of grammatical data. They have to “integrate into the lexicon the phonological rules that control the pronunciation of words, and the morphological rules that govern their construction” (Boysson. Bardies, 1996, p. 218). However, it is remarkable that the grammatical genius comes to the subject by exposure to language and not by learning it. Lacan emphasized that this phenomenon makes an objection genetic psychology in its approach to the subject:
from his early manifestations of language, the child makes use of syntax and particles according to the nuances that the postulates of mental genesis should only allow him to reach at the peak of a metaphysical career. (Lacan & Cénac, 1950 , p. 142)
Indeed, linguists agree that “the essential elements in grammar are known before they are taught, for they are an essential part of our capacity to express ourselves” (Boysson-Bardies, 1996, p. 218). Most of the studies show there are few correlations between the mother’s language and the child’s linguistic development. Parents “do not teach” the language to their children; they provide them with models (Boysson-Bardies, 1996). It is not learned like multiplication tables, and its acquisition does not require the intervention of the pedagogue. It brings preconscious mechanisms into play.
This grammar acquired without learning, inherent to the synchronous organization of the signifying chain, is clearly non-existent for the autistic child. The discourse confirming this uses very little of the terms like “because”, “since”, “therefore.” The acquisition of relative concepts, Peeters points out, is difficult for autists, “since words such as ‘big’, ‘small’, ‘broad’, ‘narrow’, ‘about’, ‘on the other side of’, ‘after’, ‘give’, ‘take’, take their meaning according to the context and with respect to the relationship they have with the other words in the sentence” (Peeters, 1996, p. 68).
In order to make an autistic child understand the concepts of “big” and “small”, he points out very precisely, “it should be possible to communicate its meaning to him starting from a “literal” perception: “this is small”, taken in an absolute sense, and here one sees the invariable sense of “big.” Unfortunately, this is impossible” (Peeters, 1996, p. 68).
What he calls “literal perception”, we have highlighted, is above all a visual and even tactile perception. Every autist perceives that words that cannot be related to an image are difficult to understand. On the other hand, it is well known that they have a tendency to take expressions literally, that is, not to contextualize them accordingly.