Even though difficulty with language has always been part of the diagnostic criteria for the kids we see with autism, it has often been split into two camps—those with language difficulties and those without. What we’ve been missing is an understanding of the more subtle differences in language use and expression—for the speaker and the listener. Researchers are just beginning to explore the finer details of how people with autism communicate.
Ruth Grossman, Associate Professor in the Department of Communication Sciences & Disorders at Emerson College in Boston is doing some fascinating research on this subject. In her specially designed FACE Lab, (Facial Affective and Communicative Expressions) she and her team study face-to-face communication in children and young adults with ASD. Her work uses “acoustic analyses of minute changes in the pitch and duration of utterances from people with autism, as well as motion-capture technology to measure detailed facial movements” in order to learn about their facial expressions, tone of voice and the actual words they use.
So far it’s been difficult to identify these communication quirks because there’s so much variation. For kids with autism, the perception of subtle language differences often makes it awkward to talk with them, and that makes social interactions isolating and frustrating. Even though these kids often fall within normal ranges on standardized tests of language and cognition they experience what Grossman calls “communication breakdowns” which she thinks means that others are less willing to engage with them.
One of the language challenges kids with autism have is with something called prosody, or the patterns of stress and intonation in language. They sometimes neglect to stress one word over another in a sentence which can totally change its meaning: Please get me the green pants, versus, Please get me the green pants. Also, our voices typically rises when we ask a question, and fall when we make a statement, but sometimes kids on the spectrum express themselves in a monotone making it more difficult to know what they mean. WIthout thinking about it, we also use verbal commas by inserting pauses into a sentence which makes a difference in what we’re communicating. For instance, without a verbal pause after the word “rum”, a grocery list that includes rum, ice cream and chocolate could be misinterpreted to be rum ice cream and chocolate.
Prosody also conveys the emotions behind the words as much as the words themselves do. Noah Sasson, a lead investigator of a recent study at the University of Dallas, wanted to see if emotional prosody had distinct features in people with autism, and if so, whether it affected how listeners perceive their emotions.
Sasson explains that the perceptions, biases, and behaviors of neurotypical people affect the social experiences of adults with autism.“I became interested in this because my team previously found that neurotypical people report being less inclined to interact with people who have autism after seeing videos of them or hearing recordings of them talking. But this wasn’t the case when they only read the transcripts of their speech. This suggested to us that the speech patterns of people with autism can convey information that leads to unfavorable impressions.”
Sasson believes that educating neurotypical people about the social communication styles of people with autism can improve the quality of their social experiences and minimize negative biases. He says, “Our research and others’ suggests that the more familiarity people have with individuals on the spectrum, the more positive their perceptions of individuals with autism”.
For more in-depth information on this topic visit the www.spectrumnews.org.