Research on Deaf Children with ASD Informs Our Understanding of Autism and Language

Friday, February 12, 2016: 10:00 AM-11:30 AM
Coolidge (Marriott Wardman Park)
Aaron Shield, Miami University of Ohio, Oxford, OH
Recent studies on deaf children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have led to new insights about how children with ASD acquire language. In the past, studies on the spoken language of hearing children with ASD have led researchers to draw general conclusions about how all children with ASD acquire language, when in fact their findings may be side effects of the vocal channel of speech. Studies of deaf, signing children with ASD have the potential to clarify how children with ASD acquire language – be it signed or spoken – as well as how the social deficits of ASD affect the language acquisition process. Three specific phenomena will be discussed in this talk. First, deaf children with ASD reverse the direction of their palm while signing, suggesting differences in how they perceive and imitate others that cannot be revealed in speech. Second, difficulties with pronouns (especially “me” and “you”) have long characterized the speech of children with ASD, but the reasons for these difficulties have remained obscure. New work on signing children with ASD shows that such children also disprefer sign language pronouns, despite the fact that sign pronouns point at the people they refer to; thus, they are transparent. Yet signing children with ASD refer to themselves and to others using sign names, just as hearing children with ASD use spoken language names. This finding helps clarify why pronouns might be challenging to children with ASD. Third, an enduring mystery is why some children with ASD fail to acquire expressive language; many such children who do not speak are taught sign. However, new work shows that a significant minority of deaf children with ASD also do not acquire sign, which suggests that the social deficits of ASD prevent such children from accessing language, regardless of whether it is signed or spoken. These studies help to de-confound our understanding of ASD from its manifestations in the typical language modality.