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5745 Abstraction, Literal Thinking, Generalization, and Learning: A Guide for the Perplexed

Friday, July 8, 2011: 3:15 PM-4:30 PM
Sanibel 123 (Gaylord Palms Resort and Convention Center)
Many individuals on the autism spectrum tend to have problems with abstraction in at least some areas. This is a significant problem because abstraction is essential in understanding non-literal communication, in generalizing information learned to a different context, and in integrating new learning into existing knowledge. This session illustrates the extent to which abstraction is used-- often without conscious awareness--in everyday life, and presents strategies for improving abstraction, generalization, and learning skills. This session addresses the importance of abstraction in everyday learning and social interaction, common problems experienced by individuals on the autism spectrum in this area, and strategies for developing and strengthening abstraction skills.
  1. Meaning of abstraction:  Abstraction involves an understanding of ideas that go beyond concrete attributes and specific examples.  This understanding is essential in relating to a number of ideas, experiences, and insights:
    1. Expression of values and emotions such as love, honesty, and peace.
    2. Expression of relationships between individuals (e.g., family relationships, friendship).
    3. Expressions of ideas that are more general than specific examples convey (e.g., colors, shapes, evaluations, rules) or represent an imperfect example (e.g., the Earth is almost round but does have mountains and valleys).
    4. Generalizing from one context to another while understanding differences in circumstances that call for a different outcome.
    5. Relating to non-literal speech.  This is implicated in different ways:
      1. Understanding metaphors, figures of speech, and non-literal references.
      2. Understanding exaggerations, hyperbole, sarcasm, and irony.
      3. Understanding implied assumptions and context.
      4. Understanding that rules and standards may involve exceptions implied in or inferred from context.
    6. Understanding and working with symbolic abstraction such as mathematics.
    7. Developing theory of mind.
    8. Getting the "big picture"--e.g., being able to relate to a chapter of material read as a whole.
    9. Understanding certain humorous expressions.
  2.  Many abstract skills are used unconsciously--e.g., recognizing sarcasm and figures of speech.  This translation, however, often does not happen among individuals on the spectrum or occurs with delay.
  3. Common problems with abstraction experienced by individuals on the autism spectrum.
    1. There are large differences among individuals on the autism spectrum:
      1. Since there is often a very uneven skillset--some may excel in math while having difficulty with language--some individuals on the spectrum will have strong abstraction skills in one area (e.g., math) while being severely challenged in another (e.g., language).
      2. Many individuals on the autism spectrum actually have interests that are rather abstract (e.g., biographies, animals' rights).  In some cases, however, these may be enjoyed at a more "rote" level (e.g., baseball statistics).
    2. Spontaneously recognizing abstraction when used by others in conversation.  There is research suggesting, for example, that certain individuals on the spectrum can learn to do well on theory-of-mind tasks done in the classroom but have greater difficulty putting such skills to work in "the field."  On rare occasions, speakers may "sign" quotation marks when using a non-literal term, but this is rare.
    3. Many individuals on the spectrum experience problems with one or more of the issues mentioned in Part I.
  4. Strategies for building abstraction skills.
    1. Taking advantage of existing abstract knowledge of special interests
      1. Theory of mind:  Trying to understand a situation from the point of view of an object of special interest (e.g., dinosaur, paleontologist).
      2. Identifying ways in which different members of a special interest can be differentiated (e.g, ways in which vacuum cleaners differ from each other).
      3. Identifying associations between aspects of a special interest (e.g., using the Associative Network of Knowledge to retrieve one idea from another--a dinosaur is associated with a small head).
    2. Identifying non-verbal communication used to signal non-literal meaning (e.g., facial expressions, non-verbal signals, context).
    3. Recognizing when an expression cannot be understood literally (e.g., "does not even begin to...").
    4. Identifying numerous and varied exampes of the use of common figures of speech.
    5. Identifying "graded structure" of categories (e.g, a robin is a better example of a bird than a chicken).
    6. Examining rules--preferably related to special interests--and exceptions.
    7. Identifying alternative approaches to learning to take advantage of areas of stronger skills (e.g., Temple Grandin has suggested that, in retrospect, the might have been able to understand geometry better than algebra).

This session presents idea helpful for individuals on the spectrum in (1) understanding the prevalence of abstraction used in everyday life and (2) offering specific strategies for improving abstraction skills.  For parents, teachers, caretakers, and others who work with the spectrum population, the sesion (1) identifies problems with abstraction that are often not evident to an individual who processes this without conscious awareness and (2) offers techniques to help a person on the spectrum develop abstraction skills.

Learning Objectives:

  • Understanding how widely abstraction pervades communication, thought, and social relationships in everyday living and the extent to which abstraction skills are used without conscious awareness.
  • Understanding how abstraction relates to literal thinking, generalization, and learning and what this means for effective teaching and communication.
  • Developing strategies for communicating about abstract ideas.
  • Understanding how special interests--where an individual on the spectrum is likely to have the most complete and abstract knowledge--can be used to develop more general abstraction skills.

Content Area: Education


Lars Perner, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing
Marshall School of Business, University of Southern California

Lars Perner is an Assistant Professor of Clinical Marketing at the University of Southern California. He developed an interest in the autism spectrum after being diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome at age 31, and has since written extensively on topics such as college preparation, autism subtypes, and back-to-school issues.