Intonation in "human emulation mode"

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Dave Itzkoff, "Elon Musk Hosts a Mother’s Day Episode of ‘Saturday Night Live’", NYT 5/9/2012 ("The much-discussed Tesla and SpaceX executive took a self-deprecating approach, telling viewers, 'I’m pretty good at running human in emulation mode.'"):

Musk, the billionaire chief executive of Tesla and founder of SpaceX, appeared in several “S.N.L.” sketches this weekend, playing characters that included a doctor at a hospital that caters to Generation Z patients, the producer of an Icelandic TV talk show and the video game villain Wario.

He used his opening monologue to share some personal details about himself, introducing viewers to his mother and discussing his diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome —  […]

Musk took a self-deprecating tone in his “S.N.L.” monologue, telling the audience: “Sometimes, after I say something, I have to say, ‘I mean that,’ so people really know that I mean it. That’s because I don’t always have a lot of intonational variation in how I speak. Which I’m told makes for great comedy.”

The question of intonational variation in the speech of people on the autism spectrum is an interesting one. In the literature and in clinical presentations, I've seen phrases like "As is well known, autistic individuals have monotone intonation", and also "As is well known, autistic individuals have singsong intonation".

This apparently reflects the fact that most observers of intonation only notice differences between what they expect and how people talk. So depending on  their relationship to the speakers and the contents and contexts of interaction, they might perceive the same speakers' intonation as inappropriately monotone or inappropriately varied. There may also be relevant subgroups within the large and extremely varied space of people "on the spectrum" — autism is one of the many DSM-defined behavioral categories that are "phenotypically diverse", which a clinician friend explains is the Greek translation of "We have no f-ing clue"…

Anyhow, intonational variability is one of the many features that we found to correlate with an ASD diagnosis — from Julia Parish-Morris et al., "Exploring Autism Spectrum Disorders Using HLT",  CLPsych Workshop (NAACL-HLT 2016):

"TDC" means "Typically Developing Children", and "NotASD" refers to subject diagnosed with some other condition, usually ADHD.

We also found that the ASD-diagnosed subjects tended to speak a bit more slowly:

"Running human in emulation mode" is apparently more commonly found, or at least more successful, in females — see Julia Parish-Morris et al., "Linguistic camouflage in girls with autism spectrum disorder", Molecular autism 2017:

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a behaviorally defined condition predominantly found in males [10194049]. Recent research suggests that girls with ASD may “camouflage” real struggles with social communication by engaging in social mimicry and behaving in ways that are superficially typical, thus complicating diagnosis [734]. For example, nonverbal communication (e.g., gesture) is broadly impaired in ASD [3]. Using 3D motion capture, a recent study showed that girls with ASD gesture in ways that are more vibrant and noticeable than boys with ASD, despite similar struggles with social communication [48]. In this way, girls effectively modified their behavior to mask a traditional area of weakness.

See also Francine Russo, "The Struggles of Women Who Mask Their Autism", The Atlantic 2/24/2018, and Eve Armstrong's brilliant 4/1/2020 essay, "An Artificially-intelligent Means to Escape Discreetly from the Departmental Holiday Party; guide for the socially awkward", discussed here.

"Camouflage" or "human emulation mode" is a tactic that describes aspects of nearly everyone's behavior. So I'll add something that I generally lead with, in any presentations where I talk about our ASD research:

It’s clear that Autism is not a “spectrum”, i.e. a single dimension, but rather a space, with many dimensions. It’s a space that we all live in, with some corners that have been medicalized because they can cause serious life problems.



  1. AntC said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 5:02 pm

    "Camouflage" or "human emulation mode" is a tactic that describes aspects of nearly everyone's behavior.

    Indeed. Adults are just children mimicking how they think adults should behave. There's an endless supply of examples for comedians/comic-strip writers.

    So the question is more like: are those in the medicalised corners (good way to put it) not so hot on observing others? or they can observe but aren't such good mimics? Or they can mimic OK when they concentrate on it, but often their concentration is elsewhere?

    I've had a career in IT, especially in software development famous, for its nerds. I observe the nerds can get very enthusiastic/intonation-rich, but only wrt topics that bore me to tears (like the latest in a .Net release); whereas what they're doing over the weekend is presented in a monotone/like it's an overbearing duty.

  2. DMcCunney said,

    May 9, 2021 @ 5:10 pm

    I know a number of "On the spectrum" folks. A key point is that it *is* a spectrum, from mild symptoms on one end progressing to full blown autism on the other. Autism spectrum diagnosis is inherently specific to the individual being discussed.

    And while ASD is most easily observable in men, it does indeed manifest in women. I know several. Part of the difference in visibility is that female children are socialized differently than males. A female ASD sufferer is likely to have her mother grasp her head and say "Look at me!", indicating that the expression on mom's face is significant. The female child learns to camouflage the issue. One woman I know, who married and produced a fully autistic son, did so well enough that I wasn't aware she had ASD till she stated it. The circumstances under which I interacted with her were those in which her camouflage was effective.

    (And I encountered a male ASD sufferer who had *trained* himself to recognize facial expressions. The problem was, it was *hard* work. He had to consciously consider the expression on the face of the person he was talking to. In someone not burdened with ASD, this recognition was handled as a matter of unconscious reflex, and integrated with the full communications flow. For him, it meant the limited bandwidth he had for conscious consideration had to be split between deciding what the face he saw indicated about the emotional state of the other person, and in understanding the words being spoken and what they meant. More often than not, he didn't try to understand the faces. The words were more important.)

    One of the things I do for a hobby is help plan and execute hobbyist conventions. For whatever reason, a large number of folks with ASD attend events I plan. The issue they present is that normal communications encompass both actual spoken language, and the emotional states of the speakers. We get the emotional state from side-band communications -:the expression on their face, the tone of their voice, the body language they display – but those things are processed and integrated on a reflex level. People with ASD often don't *perceive* those cues. They are simply unaware of how those they interact with perceive and respond to them. In some cases, the respondents really just want the person with ASD to go away and not interact with them. But our society prefers to avoid that sort of bluntness and you don't just tell someone "Go away and leave me alone!" Things get steadily worse, and I've spent more time than I really want to remember dealing with the consequences.

  3. Philip Taylor said,

    May 10, 2021 @ 7:14 am

    DMcC — I don't think that anyone is seeking to deny that "autism is a spectrum", but to many people a spectrum is mono-dimensional, whereas autism is in fact $n$-dimensional, as Mark states in his closing para.

  4. Trogluddite said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 8:28 am

    @MYL: 'It’s clear that Autism is not a “spectrum”, i.e. a single dimension…'
    @DMcCunney: '… from mild symptoms on one end progressing to full blown autism on the other.'
    @Philip Taylor: '…to many people a spectrum is mono-dimensional…'

    These comments all have a certain irony about them: The following extract is from Steve Silberman's history of autism, 'Neurotribes' (p.382); 'Lorna' is psychiatrist Lorna Wing, the developer of the spectrum model of autism…

    "Over time, Lorna would lose her taste for the word 'continuum' because it suggested an incremental gradient of severity […] when what she was suggesting was something more individual, nuanced, and multidimensional. […] Ultimately, she adopted the term 'autism spectrum, […]'"

    Lorna was both a ground-breaking researcher and a tenacious campaigner; however, it seems she was a bit unlucky when naming things – she also named Asperger's Syndrome (controversial due to its removal from the DSM-V diagnostic manual and, later, revelations about Hans Asperger's involvement in eugenic activities during the Anchluss.)

  5. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 12:42 pm

    The non-metaphorical "spectrum" of visible light is one-dimensional, and I daresay many/most metaphorical spectra are also thought of that way, as implied by this quote I just pulled off the internet: "Nonscientific uses of the term spectrum are sometimes misleading. For instance, a single left–right spectrum of political opinion does not capture the full range of people's political beliefs. Political scientists use a variety of biaxial and multiaxial systems to more accurately characterize political opinion."

    Although maybe Dr. Wing still could have thought "spectrum" was better than "continuum" because it seemed less judgmental? Whether red or violet or somewhere in between is the best spot on the visible-light spectrum is a matter of taste and/or context, with increasing or decreasing frequency not taken as a measure of "severity." "A space that we all live in with some corners that have been medicalized" is a more helpful image but maybe rather harder to boil down to a single word.

  6. Daniel Barkalow said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 4:31 pm

    The non-metaphorical "spectrum" of visible light, as it actually occurs, is a one-dimensional arrangement of frequencies, but light sources have an amplitude at each frequency, and not all colors even correspond to any pure frequency (reddish purple, for example, but also black, white, and any pastel color). Scientists doing spectral analysis are looking at the amounts of emissions at each different frequency and recognizing compositions of materials from having emissions at a combination of different frequencies together. A piano keyboard is also a spectrum, and you normally press multiple keys at once. Likewise, a spectrum analyzer for a stereo shows the amount of sound at each frequency, not a single pitch that's currently playing. So a spectrum really should, metaphorically, be a multi-dimensional system which combines a collection of traits: how sensitive to noise are you, and how much does your intonation indicate you affect, and how much do people's faces just look like they feel different ways? Of course, unlike non-metaphorical spectra, these traits aren't laid out in some inherent order with an infinite gradation between traits, but it's easier to line all the traits up and plot an amount of each trail than have a space with a dozen orthogonal dimensions.

  7. Trogluddite said,

    May 11, 2021 @ 6:14 pm

    @J.W. Brewer: "A space that we all live in with some corners that have been medicalized" is a more helpful image but maybe rather harder to boil down to a single word."

    Agreed. I was diagnosed with Autistic Spectrum Condition** (ASC) about six years ago, and since then have intermittently hung around on autism community forums/chatrooms/etc., where the language used to describe autism is a regular subject of debate (tiresomely so at times). While there certainly are some grumbles about the linear connotations of "spectrum", I have yet to see any compelling alternatives suggested, nor any widespread enthusiasm for one. In any case, "spectrum" is now baked into the diagnostic labels of the DSM and ICD, so I think "spectrum" is here to stay for a while.

    ** Bonus autism-linguism: here in the UK (and I assume other territories which use the ICD manuals), autism is formally a "condition" (ASC). I shall try not to read too much into the USA and DSM still calling it a "disorder"! ;-)

    [PS: Dr. Wing did go on to mention the optical spectrum and analogies with colour when interviewed by Mr. Silberman – unfortunately, I'm now apart from the book so can't offer another quote].

    @AntC: [NB: I'm *not* a trained professional! Sprinkle with "IMHO"s!]
    From my viewpoint "within" autism, the kind of strained cognitive and perceptual processes which you asked about are exactly what the terrain looks like, and I think yours are just the kind of questions which need asking.

    For some strange reason, once it's known that you have a neurological condition, every single observed *behaviour* is assumed to be a "trait" of the condition which is expected to be utterly consistent. This is, of course, ridiculous; as contradictory "stereotypes" attest. To me, the "traits" of autism are discombobulating hiccups in the dozens of sensory, perceptual, and cognitive sub-systems which have to work together to make me behave somewhat like a human being. Before these emerge as *behaviour*, they are mediated by my learning, the social context, my mood, how tiddly or caffeinated I might be, and how much effort I'm making, e.g. camouflaging (*being* autistic is easy, pretending *not to be* is utterly exhausting!)

    Hence, I think the current behavioural diagnostic criteria are very blunt instruments. For now, they are all that's available, and for a long time they've been considered adequate, as neuro-developmental conditions were (and to some extent still are) the last refuge of behaviourist psychology, which mostly dismisses all the untidy machinery inside our heads as irrelevant. What I would like to see is research which digs for the underlying perceptual and cognitive signatures of "traits" such as my profound difficulty "seeing" body language that's happening right in my line of sight, or why processing speech takes my brain so long that the subject of conversation can change three times before I've finished de-referencing all the pronouns in the opening gambit.

    (Interest in such research is partly what draws me to LanguageLog, of course!)

  8. J.W. Brewer said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 9:33 am

    @Trogluddite: I don't know the specific story here, but it is often the case in the U.S. that there are fights about whether to label a particular "condition" as a "disorder" (or other pejorative-sounding word) with the rival perspectives often being (i) "'disorder' unnecessarily pathologizes a condition within the ordinary range of human variation" versus (ii) "'disorder' makes it easier to get things people with the condition need and/or want paid for by their medical insurance." I imagine in the UK there may be fights about how to conceptualize particular conditions to get the NHS or other government agencies to provide treatment/assistance for people with them, but perhaps the specific word-choices relevant to that sort of strategy are different?

  9. Trogluddite said,

    May 12, 2021 @ 10:48 am

    @Daniel Barkalow
    Your conception of a "spectrum analyser" type chart does see some use in visualising autism, albeit usually a polar rather than linear plot, and with relatively few and coarsely defined traits (e.g. "communication", "empathy", "analytic") In fact, in autism communities it is not unusual to hear the jargon term "spiky profile" – alluding to the way that autistic people often have an unpredictable mix of significant impairments alongside enhanced "splinter skills", making such charts look very jagged.

    @J.M. Brewer
    I have heard anecdotally that the needs of the US health insurance industry has had a considerable influence on the DSM; in particular the very strict numeric categorisation of conditions which, in reality, have very fuzzy boundaries and/or diverse manifestations. This played a part in the controversy over the removal of the Asperger's Syndrome diagnosis, due to worries that loss of the DSM code would result in loss of health insurance benefits for people so diagnosed (thankfully, their re-categorisation under ASD went far more smoothly than was feared.)

    Here in the UK, seeking long-term care is, it might be said, more "multi-dimensional": assessment looks at the practical impairments to the skills required for everyday living (e.g. mobility, communication, meal preparation, etc.). In principle at least, no condition automatically guarantees or precludes support – a medical diagnosis is certainly seen as strong evidence, but is not an essential requirement.

    I can certainly see how the differences between those systems might have an influence on the language used, just as disability charities tend to lead with connotations intended to elicit sympathy.

  10. Uly said,

    May 13, 2021 @ 12:46 pm

    It's worth noting that the communication "deficits" go both ways. There are numerous studies now indicating that autistic/autistic communication generally works just fine. In a group that's primarily on the spectrum, it's the NT who is impaired.

  11. Trogluddite said,

    May 14, 2021 @ 7:42 am

    Indeed. When autistic and non-autistic interact, one could argue that the non-autistic has the greater deficit in "theory of mind". I have yet to hear of any non-autistics who routinely "camouflage" themself from autistics by "running autism emulation mode"! As a member of the "disordered" minority, I am compelled to at least *attempt* to bridge the gulf between differing internal models of the world, whereas those in the overwhelming majority who always expect *my* compliance with *their* norms have no such incentive.

    I also have the advantage of more plentiful subjects for my amateur comparative anthropology studies, and am more often reminded that my sub-conscious "theory of mind" sub-system trades effortless swiftness for questionable accuracy, so am habituated to second guessing myself (some effortless swiftness would be nice – not being able to keep up is a commonly reported cause of autistics' difficulties with socialising)

    This is often referred to as the "double empathy problem", and may apply to other minority groups – as I understand it, "camouflaging", "masking", and "passing [for typical]" are all terms borrowed by autism advocates from LGBT+ sociolects.

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