I've just finished reading Naoki Higashida's very moving book, Fall Down 7 Times Get Up 8 - in which he gives his account of severe, non-verbal autism from the inside.
Free-flowing conversation is not possible for Noaki. Instead, he has learnt to communicate by 'typing out' sentences on an alphabet grid; a process which can be painstakingly slow. His writing is concise and beautifully poetic - opening a window into the mind of a deep-thinking and highly philosophical individual.
Naoki describes his experience of having very limited spoken language available to him as follows:
Spoken language is a blue sea. Everyone else is swimming, diving and frolicking freely, while I’m alone, stuck in a tiny boat, swayed from side to side. Rushing towards and around me are waves of sound. Sometimes the swaying is gentle. Sometimes I’m thrown about and I have to grip the boat with all my strength. If I’m thrown overboard I’ll drown – a prospect so disturbing, so laden with despair, it can devour me. At other times, however, even if I can’t swim in the water, I gaze at the play of light on the surface, delight at being afloat on it, trail my hands and feet in the sea, and dream of jumping in with everyone else. When I’m working on my alphabet grid or my computer, I feel as if someone’s cast a magic spell and turned me into a dolphin. I dive down deep – then shoot back up, break the surface and surprise all the swimmers. The process can feel so free, so effortless, that I almost forget I was ever stuck in that boat.
This powerful description is a salutary reminder that we should never assume to know what another person's thoughts might be. When we are able to set our preconceived ideas to one side and simply be curious about another person's experiences we may find ourselves witness to some truly amazing thinking.
This is the kind of thinking that is encouraged by using Clean Language - a straightforward and respectful way of communicating and exploring a situation. At its heart lies a set of Clean questions, which help to keep the assumptions, suggestions and interpretations of the person asking the questions out of the way - leaving the person answering free to do their own thinking about their situation.
These questions can also be used to focus on the metaphors that people use to express themselves. When this happens they experience being listened to at a very deep level. Interestingly I am often asked whether Clean Language can be used with people with autism or Asperger's syndrome, since it is said that these individuals 'don't do metaphor'. Naoki's very eloquent use of metaphor shows us that this is perhaps another assumption that we need to challenge!