One of the principal characteristics of autistic people is their impossibility to communicate the way the rest of the people do. They usually have a problem with “abstraction” that make really problematic for them to understand normal speech. When we ask someone “How are you?” we could obtain a myriad of different answers meaning “good”: well, great, couldn’t be better, never better, happy, fine… When the autistic person is expecting to hear the word good, he/she is bombarded with such a range of different possibilities that make it impossible to understand. This kind of situation triggers a huge anxiety both for autistic people and their families, that need to learn a completely new (restricted and foreseeable) way to communicate.
What has this to do with learning languages? Well, it is exactly the same problem we all face when trying to learn a new language! Imagine that you travel to Spain and want to try your basic knowledge of Spanish. You go into a shop and smiling say ‘¡Buenos días!‘ (Good morning!).
You will be expecting something like ‘Good morning to you too. How can I help you?’ because that’s what your textbook says. Instead, you could receive something like ‘Espere un momento que ahora mismo le atiendo’ (‘Wait a moment, I’ll be with you right now) or “Buenos serían si estuviera bañándome en la playa en lugar de levantarme a las 5 de las mañana para hacer pan” (Good morning would be if I was lying on the beach instead of waking up at 5 am to prepare bread!)
We learn the basic greeting expressions. Then go and salute someone in a shop and… we understand nothing the person use as a response!! That frustrates and discourages us on trying again. Exactly as our answers discourage and confuse an autistic person.
Professor Ajit Narayanan, after working for years with kids with problems to communicate, developed an app known as Avaz, that helps autistic children to express through pictures. But something was missing. Grammar was not part of the communication equation for these kids and being an absolutely basic part of our everyday speech, that left the tool far from solving the problem.
What if the language could be mapped and any concept expressed through grammar could be conveyed by images? Would be possible to communicate anything that way? This idea now powers an app that helps nonverbal people communicate, and the big idea behind it, a language concept called FreeSpeech, has exciting potential. The potential of teaching any language through a common set of rules.
We recommend that you take a look below to Professor Narayanan explaining how it works in this TED Talk video.