Autism Speaks (and Signs)

Tuesday, November 6, 2012 View Comments

Guest blog by Aaron Shield, PhD, postdoctoral research scholar at the Research on Autism and Developmental Disorders (ROADD) Center at Boston University. In this blog, Dr. Shield describes research made possible through a predoctoral fellowship from Autism Speaks.

We know that autism entails difficulties with language and communication. But what happens when that language is conveyed visually rather than vocally, as with deaf children who communicate in sign language?

I started thinking about this problem in 2007, when I was a doctoral student in linguistics at the University of Texas at Austin. I was studying how deaf children acquire signed languages. (Yes, there are many of them!) I was fascinated by the similarities and differences between sign and speech. Signed and spoken languages are probably more similar than they are different. They both have complex grammatical rules, multiple levels of structure and are acquired naturally by children exposed to them.

But there are also important differences. For example, signed languages use facial expressions to help convey grammatical meaning. The difference between a statement and a question, for example, can depend on facial expression. Raised eyebrows or a furrowed brow indicate questions in American Sign Language.

Yet children with autism often avoid eye contact and have difficulty interpreting facial expressions used for emotion. I started to wonder how autism might affect how deaf children understand and produce sign language.

At the time, I was looking for a challenging dissertation topic – something that no one had explored before. It turned out that there had been almost no research on deaf children with autism, despite the fact that more deaf children carry an autism diagnosis (1 in 59) than in the general population (1 in 88).

With the help of a predoctoral fellowship from Autism Speaks, I embarked on one of the first studies to examine how autism affects sign language in deaf children.

I hypothesized that deaf children with autism would show unique characteristics in their signing because of something known as the “perspective-taking problem.” Since signs are produced in three-dimensional space, how they appear depends on where you stand in relation to the person signing. For example the sign for “turtle” can appear one way (with the thumb pointing toward you) if you are facing the signer and another way (with the thumb pointing away from you) if you are standing beside the signer. Deaf children need to learn to recognize and reproduce signs in a uniform way – regardless of relative position. The sign for “turtle,” for example, should always have the thumb pointing outwards.

We know from research that children with autism have difficulties with visual perspective-taking. So I predicted that deaf children with autism were likely to produce particular kinds of errors in their signing. Namely, they might produce signs as viewed from their own perspective. This would result in sign reversals: Their hands would face in the wrong direction. This is reminiscent of pronoun reversals in speech, when hearing children with autism sometimes switch the pronouns “me” and “you.”

I traveled around the country over the next couple of years, studying deaf children in Massachusetts, Texas, Ohio, Indiana, Iowa, and Minnesota. In all of these places, I met parents and teachers who were enthusiastic and encouraging of my work. They knew that we needed research to better understand deaf children with autism and how we could best help them learn.

The results of my study recently appeared in the Journal of Communication Disorders. I report that young signing children with autism sometimes exhibit palm reversals in their signing. But deaf children without autism did not. This is important for two reasons:

  • First, it suggests that reversal errors in sign may be a marker of autism in signing children.
  • Second, it helps us understand how children with autism perceive others. The fact that they reproduce signs from their own perspective suggests that autism entails a breakdown in the process of “self-other mapping,” or how we relate our own bodies to the bodies of others.

I am now a postdoctoral research fellow in psychology at Boston University, working with Helen Tager-Flusberg, PhD, on a nationwide follow-up study on deaf children with autism. I am immensely grateful to Autism Speaks for giving me the opportunity to begin exploring this uncharted territory. I sincerely hope that my research will continue to illuminate how autism affects language and communication in both deaf and hearing children.

Through its Weatherstone Predoctoral Fellowships, Autism Speaks continues to launch promising young scientists into the field of autism research while funding their innovative and promising research projects. You can explore these and other Autism Speaks research grants using this website’s Grant Search.