Genericity and generalization (universals and generics).
It is well known that many people with ASC have some rigidity and have a hard time accommodating exceptions in their generalizations (for example, if lunch is at 2 o’clock, it may be difficult for them to understand that this is usually the case, so there will be days when, for whatever reason, lunch is sooner or later).
By studying their understanding of generic statements (“tigers have stripes”) we are exploring whether this inflexibility concerns only the social world or is it really a mark of their way of thinking.
Possibly, if somebody asks you if all dogs have four legs, you would say yes, even if they ask you to take your time and think about it. However, your answer may change if you are asked to answer two different questions: the first one would be whether dogs have four legs and the second one would be whether all dogs have four legs. Although the meaning of all is quite clear, we tend to consider thata generalization that includes the word all is correct even if there are exceptions. There are a few explanations as to why this can happen, but one that is quite convincing is that we really don’t pay too much attention to what all means and we understand it as a simple bare (determinerless) nominal. What we want to know is whether this laxity when it comes to accepting generalizations, even those that, strictly speaking, would not have to be considered good, is a universal feature. We assume that taking a generalization that is known to have valid exceptions requires some cognitive flexibility. In the field of regulations and social habits, some people on the autism spectrum have trouble accommodatingexceptions: if you have to wait for the traffic light to turn green, then you wait. Is this social rule- and conventions-driven attitude related to a more general lack of cognitive flexibility that leads to not being able to accommodate exceptions? Exploring this issue is important because if the reluctance to accept exceptions to generalizations touches only the social sphere, the intervention and the mutual adjustment thatneurotypicals and people with ASC would have to do are, in principle, much simpler.
Perspective and change of perspective in language.
In the conversations we have, even the simplest ones, we have to be aware of what our interlocutors’ perspective is: what things we can take for granted, what things are new, where they — interlocutors — are and where we — speakers — are, etc. We also need to understand the perspective of the other person to understand some grammatical structures and certain lexical items. What kind of challenge is this perspective element for people with ASC?
Imagine that at home I have a dog and an octopus, but you don’t know it. There would be no problem in saying (without adding anything else) “Last night I forgot to feed my dog.”, but perhaps it would be surprising if I say (without adding anything else) “Last night I forgot to feed my octopus.” It seems that in the second case I would have to elaborate my message in a way such that you would be able to accommodate the information that in this case I convey implicitly, namely, that I have an octopus as a pet. In our language exchanges we usually take into account what our interlocutor knows and does not know, as well as what kind of things can surprise them and what kind of things they can accommodate without problems. To do this, we adopt the perspective of our interlocutor: we put ourselves in their place. It has long been said that some people with ASC would have difficulties in doing the exercise of abandoning the egocentric perspective and adopting that of another person. Our research focuses on discovering to what extent adopting another person’s perspective offers difficulties in ASC, since not all changes in perspective seem equally difficult in a conversation.
Inner speech and its role in cognition.
Many people speak quietly to themselves quite often, many times as if they had an internal conversation. It is said that doing so serves important issues such as focusing attention, planning, thinking carefully, and knowing and motivating oneself. Many people with ASC, such as Temple Grandin, say that in their conscious thinking they only use images. We want to know to what extent this trait is widespread among people with ASC, what can be the reason that they use more or less inner speech, and how they perform the functions that neurotypicals perform when they talk to themselves.
In the conscious life of most people qualified as neurotypical, inner speech (talking to oneself without opening the mouth) occupies about 30% of their experiences. We do many things by talking to ourselves: from fighting boredom to thinking about sensitive issues, to cheering, insulting or telling us how beautiful we are. One use of inner speech that always stands out is the self-regulatory role, which appears in thinking step by step, inhibiting automatic responses or planning how to do a complicated task. On the other hand, for the little that is known, people with ASC make little use of inner speech while encountering obstacles to control, such as inhibiting automatic responses and monitoring and controlling their own actions. This part of our work investigates the use of inner speech in people with ASC, but also in people who have linguistic problems that reasonably affect their inner dialogue. Ultimately, we try to understand what kind of relationship they have with themselves, since in the case of neurotypical people this relationship depends largely on internal speech
Literal meaning and metonymic/figurative meaning:
One of the classical problems in language development in many people with ASC and other atypical developments is that they understand things literally. Apreference for literal meanings is also observed in neurotypical boys and girls of around 5 years. But in this case it does not seem to be a sign of inflexibility
It may not be either in the case of atypical development.When someone tells you “you are the wind beneath my wings”, you understand that it means that you have been particularly supportive to the speaker. If you hear that the expression “red herring”,you understand that something is misleading or distracting Young children and people with linguistic problems do not seem to have too much difficulty understanding the non-literal meanings we express daily with these types of expressions. Although they may not know exactly what we mean, they do not think, for example, what we are saying about a person that is a wind beneath someone else’s wings. Among many people with ASC, however, it is said that there is a strong tendency to understand things literally. We try to understand why this happens, and if it can be related to the perplexity generated to them by the social world, or if it is something that has to do with purely linguistic-cognitive development.