Linguistic and cognitive abilities in the non-verbal and minimally verbal population:
Some of our family and friends identify single words and are able to respond appropriately to instructions, but they do not use the words they know to communicate. We would like to know more about what they know and what they may be understanding when we interact with them.
Among the population with autism, there is a segment of people who know a number of words, which means that at some point in their life they have learned that a sequence of sounds (“car”) refers to an object in the world (a four-wheeler). But how has this process developed? Can they expand the inventory of known words? And what does it mean for them to know those words?
We know that neurotypicals, once they acquire a certain number of words, they begin to understand and produce complex structures, starting with two words, like “red car”. We are interested in investigating whether this also occurs in the minimally verbal population.
Likewise, although non-verbal intelligence tests can tell us a lot about the cognitive abilities of non-verbal or minimally verbal autists, it is difficult to know, in many cases, what is the basic conceptual framework of their minds. Some evolutionary psychologists speak of “basic cognition” to refer to the notions of object, agent, cause-effect, and quantity. The notion of the agent, as an object that propels itself and moves according to its ends, is particularly important when it comes to interacting socially. We want to check if this and other basic notions are present in the minds of people with severe and non-verbal autism.
Acquisition of new words:
Have you ever thought about how you (or your children or grandchildren) acquired the words that you know? Some words we have learned by reading (the most cultured or less frequent) or a person has pointed to an object and said “this is an airplane”, but this has not been the case for most of the words we have command of. What we intend to explore in this project is whether the mechanisms that are supposed to work in the neurotypical population are also at play in the atypical population.
Specifically, we want to study a strategy called “fast mapping”, consisting in the ability to label an object and retain that label to name a similar object in new, similar or different circumstances. Typical children are known to use this strategy at a very young age (around two years). In essence, the strategy is to infer that a new name refers to an object whose name we ignore. It is difficult to estimate the importance of this vocabulary learning mechanism in typical children, since typical children use, surely to a greater extent, social learning mechanisms based on joint attention. However, it is reasonable to think that “fast mapping” will have great relevance in word learning among autistic children.
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.
The logic of conversation?
Although it may not seem like it, our discourse and conversations follow rules that obey the need to exchange information and optimize communication, according to the theoretical literature in semantics and pragmatics (all based on neurotypical population). Do people with autism or people with language difficulties follow the same rules? What (and where) are the possible differences?
The DSM-5 mentions “deficits in social communication” among the diagnostic criteria of the autism spectrum. This difficulty can be materialized in different ways, some of them widely studied (such as problems monitoring speech turns or understanding irony or jokes). We want to focus on the phenomena of the so-called “linguistic pragmatics”, which have to do with the organization of information in sentences, which reflects our way of structuring discourse. To give an example, it is not the same to say “I have eaten the sandwich” than “The sandwich, I have eaten” or “I have eaten THE SANDWICH”; those three sentences are acceptable in different contexts. With another example: it is not the same to speak of “the scooter” or “a scooter”. Again, the two expressions are correct, but we will use them in different contexts, depending on whether our interlocutor already knows that we have a scooter or not. What we are interested in knowing in this project is whether the rules that underlie the use of different linguistic structures are shared by everyone or if there are people who are guided by other norms.
Ambiguity in language:
English words like ring, bat or drop have more than one meaning. If we consider them in the absence of context, we opt for one of the senses on the basis of which one is more frequent. However, the effect of frequency can be overridden by context. For instance, in the sentence “My spouse gave me a ring as a present”, we know that the word ring refers to the piece of jewelry; by contrast, in the sentence “Ring me at 8:00!”, the word ring refers to the action of calling. This phenomenon, called ambiguity, is ubiquitous in human communication. In this project we investigate whether speakers process ambiguity differently and in which cases (depending on which factors) there is more difficulty.
A circumstance that occurs in everyday communication between humans is that the same message has more than one meaning, which often leads to misunderstandings. This ambivalence, called ambiguity, can have different sources (a polysemic or homonymous word, a sentence with two possible syntactic analyses, or a message attributable to two different interlocutors, just to mention a few examples).
One of the hypotheses on autism gives executive functions (and among them, the capacity for inhibition) an important role in explaining the traits observed in the population on the autism spectrum. We suppose that the ambiguity reveals the need to inhibit one of the two representations posed in a context of ambivalence; hence our interest in exploring possible differences between the neurotypical population and (part of the) population with autism.
Augmentative communication systems:
Electronic devices such as tablets are augmentative communication systems that are used regularly among the population with linguistic communication problems, including non-verbal autism. However, it is a resource that has hardly been tested among non-verbal or minimally verbal adults. In this pilot project we study the ability of minimally verbal adults with a low receptive vocabulary to communicate with pictograms implemented on tablets. These are individualized studies in which the expressive capacity of the tablet is adjusted to the expressive and comprehension capacity shown by the person.
At CAD Landaberde (Landaberde Daycare Center in Vitoria-Gasteiz) we are carrying out a pioneering study with adults whose receptive (linguistic) vocabulary is between the equivalent of that of a 1-and-a-half-year-old and a 3-year-old child. These are people whose linguistic production is scarce, and who usually have few resources when it comes to communicating. We are working with them, together with Autismo Araba (the Autism Association of Araba), by designing boards that fit their interests and abilities, with the aim of facilitating communication with the people around them.
We aim at extending this study to children with special linguistic expression problems and at consolidating this program so that it can become a resource that the Autismo Araba can offer to people with severe language problems.
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
Rigidity and inflexibility:
One of the most striking characteristics in autism is rigidity or inflexibility. However, not all autistic individuals are rigid in the same way, nor does their rigidity have to obey the same reasons in all cases. Although the idea of rigidity is used in diagnostics, in therapy, and in education, there is relatively little research on the notion itself and the actual use made of it. We try to shed some light on this notion, as well as on the possible causes of some type of rigidity being so frequent in the spectrum.
En este proyecto nos proponemos explorar la noción de rigidez, que se ha estudiado vastamente en la investigación y la práctica clínica para describir un abanico de comportamiento característico de las condiciones del espectro del autismo; por ejemplo, la inflexibilidad cognitiva, la adhesión estricta a reglas y rutinas, la intolerancia a la incertidumbre y el literalismo. El término “rigidez” muchas veces se usa como un concepto que agrupa muchos fenómenos que incluso podrían ser incompatibles los unos con los otros. Nuestro objetivo es estudiar a fondo la rigidez para identificar así sus subcomponentes significativos, lo que podría ayudar a mejorar el diagnóstico y la intervención en el ámbito educativo y clínico.
There are cases of children who have had at some point in their lives enough autism traits to be considered autistic, but who stop presenting enough traits a while later. Until recently, they tended to be considered anecdotal. Today a name has been coined for these cases: optimal outcomes. The label suggests that the development of these children is the result of early intervention, but it is not really known what causes them to develop as they do, and why there are children whose learning and maturing causes their apparent autism traits to decline how do they do that. Taking into account that the proportion of children with this profile who have visited our laboratory is quite high, we want to investigate at least what these kids are like, as well as follow their evolution, trying to find common patterns among all of them.
The idea of autism as a developmental condition / disorder makes it impossible for a person to be autistic in childhood and not be autistic in youth, for example. If a person has autistic traits as a child and stops having them as a teenager, then they will not be considered autistic, even as a child. The existence of “optimal outcomes” complicates the possibility of accurately diagnosing autism at an early age. At the moment, very little is known about this profile. In general, these are children with delayed speech development, whose difficulty in communicating could lead to social withdrawal and the development of anxiety symptoms such as stereotypies, self-stimulation and repetitive behaviors. They probably also have greater adaptability and willingness to be guided by therapies. It cannot be ruled out, on the other hand, that less visible features of autism do not appear in the development of these children, for example, features related to the misunderstanding of the structure of the social world.
In recent times there is a lot of discussion around the topic of camouflaging in autism. It is something that the autistic community itself has drawn attention to, at least the part of the community that is most aware of its own condition. A very widespread idea within this community is that the attempt to pass as someone you are not (neurotypical people) generates a very high level of anxiety, with devastating long-term consequences. We would like to gain a better understanding of how this phenomenon occurs across the spectrum.
In this project we aim to propose a conceptual model of camouflaging in autism. Camouflaging may be characterized as a range of strategies adopted by some autistic people to navigate the neurotypical social world. Examples of camouflaging include rehearsing conversations, imitating other people’s gestures and expressions, and making an effort to hide autistic traits. This project sets out to better understand this phenomenon by distinguishing between conscious and unconscious forms of camouflaging as well as by highlighting its potential costs and benefits.