Aaron Shield, linguist

Autism complicates the way people communicate. This researcher considers kids whose primary dialect is signed instead of spoken. Interview by Emily Benson

April 04, 2016

A child produces the sign for "you" in response to the question, "Who is that?" as Aaron Shield holds up a picture of himself. Courtesy of Aaron Shield

Many autistic children struggle with language and social understanding. So what happens when a child with autism converses not in English, but in a signed language—a mode of communicating that depends on gazing into someone else’s face?

Sign language isn’t just a series of hand motions; facial expressions convey crucial information, too. Linguist Aaron Shield, a self-described polyglot who’s now learning Swedish (his ninth language), studies communication by autistic children who are also deaf. This population, Shield says, offers a new way to examine how autism affects language.

Social cues, like a smile or a grimace, help us understand the intended meaning behind an exclamation like, “Wow, this soup is spicy!” Those nonverbal signs are clear to most speakers, but interpreting them can be difficult for children with autism.

Indirect words can also cause trouble. Many hearing people with autism prefer to use proper names rather than pronouns such as “you” or “me.” That may be because pronouns aren’t as precise as names, Shield says. In ASL, pronouns are more direct than they are in English: the signer points at the person to whom they’re referring. Surprisingly, despite that difference, signers with autism also prefer not to use pronouns, Shield and his colleagues reported in a paper published last year.

Shield, a professor at Miami University of Ohio, discussed his research on sign language and autism at the February 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in Washington, D.C. After his talk, he sat down with SciCom’s Emily Benson to chat about signing, speaking, and how social skills help keep conversations flowing.

Which came first, your interest in studying autism or your interest in ASL?

ASL came first. When I started graduate school in linguistics at the University of Texas, where there were deaf people in the department and deaf graduate students, ASL really expanded my understanding of what languages could be. I decided to study signed languages to understand what it means for a language to be visual rather than vocal and auditory.

The interest in autism came about five years later. I was hearing a lot about autism in the news. I started thinking, what would happen if a deaf child had autism? If you have to look other people in the face in order to perceive what they are communicating to you, but you have an aversion to faces, what does that do to your language? Nobody had studied that before. 

How are ASL and English different, and how are they similar?

They are separate linguistic systems. Signs in ASL don't refer to English words; some signs are hard to translate. And the sentence structure of ASL—the order of the signs themselves—is different. For example, I could say, [signs as he speaks] "CHINA, YOU TOUCH-FINISH?" That would be the order of signs to say, “Have you been to China?” It uses a different verb, a different helping verb to express the past, and a different order of words entirely.

[In ASL] you can express two or three things at once, whereas in spoken language you have to put everything in an order because we can't produce more than one sound at a time. So you could have a facial expression that indicates a question at the same time that your hands are producing a question word. You get this bundling of information in a totally different way.

In terms of similarities, [ASL has] all of the important characteristics of language: babies acquire sign from birth naturally; later-exposed learners don’t acquire the language with the same fluency; you can create new expressions or produce sentences that have never been produced before; you can talk about abstract things. Sign languages are human languages with all of the full complexity and ability to express that spoken languages have.

"People assume sign language is not as complex a system as speech, and therefore could be learned by anyone with little exposure. That's a misunderstanding."

So ASL is a unique language, just like French or English or Swedish.

Yes, definitely. That’s something we didn’t know before the 1960s. Linguists didn’t know there was structure in sign languages and rules governing the structure, in the same way that rules in spoken languages tell us how to order sounds into words and words into sentences.

Is there a difference between teaching a child signs and teaching him or her a signed language?

Yes. That's a huge difference. People often conflate the two. You'll often read about “ sign language” working for children with autism. That means we taught them the signs for "more" and "milk" and "please." But that is a far cry from the full linguistic system of ASL with its own grammar, with its thousands of lexical items [signs], and all of the nuances that can be conveyed with them. I think in general people are confused about what sign language is. They assume sign language is not as complex a system as speech, and therefore could be learned by anyone with little exposure. That's a misunderstanding.

What are some of the ways that children with autism process language differently than other children?

It's a spectrum, from kids who are completely fluent in sign or speech to kids who produce very little or no expressive language, [though] that doesn't mean they're not understanding language.

If I had to say one thing that characterizes the language of kids with autism, I would say it's difficulty with the social use of language. That can range from non-literal meanings, like when you're ironic or sarcastic or using language figuratively, to things that change the way we interpret it, like intonation, melody, facial expression, body posture. We use all of those cues to understand not just the words someone is saying, but what they actually mean.

What can we learn by studying children with autism whose primary language is ASL?

It clarifies our understanding of autism by giving us another example of how autism affects language. If we only study hearing kids, then we only know something about the way autism affects speech; we don't know if that's just about speech, or about language more broadly. And because sign languages depend on slightly different social skills, we can look more deeply into how social skills are disrupted in autism.

How do pronouns differ between English and ASL?

In ASL, you point your index finger at the intended referent. Signs are transparent; the finger actually points at that person. In speech, the word “you” is an arbitrary combination of sounds. There's not really any natural reason for those sounds to indicate that person. "You" could mean anything, and it gets shifted around in use. That can be confusing even for typically developing young children, because it's not the way most words work. Kids have to figure out that pronouns shift meaning over time. That seems to be challenging, particularly for kids with autism.

Other studies have shown that autistic children who aren’t deaf sometimes have trouble with pronouns. For example, they might use proper names instead of “you” or “me” when speaking. How did you study how signing children use pronouns?

I showed the children pictures of themselves that I had just taken with an iPad. I signed to them, "Who is that?" Most of the typically developing deaf children pointed at themselves—they produced the pronoun. Most of the kids with autism produced their sign names.

What's interesting about that is the sign-language names are almost always harder to articulate than just the simple point [the pronoun]. So it's not that they’re going for a simpler form; they're actually going for a more complex form.

I also wanted to see how they would refer to me. So I showed them a picture of myself and asked, "Who is that?" Again, most of the typically developing children pointed at me—produced the pronoun—and most of the kids with autism signed "man," or "doctor," or tried to fingerspell my name if they remembered it.

Why do you think some children with autism prefer not to use pronouns?

People with autism have told me that pronouns feel imprecise. A lot of communication rests on letting there be some space in the conversation where you're not exactly sure what someone is saying. [Harvard University psychologist] Steven Pinker has talked about indirectness in speech as a way for us to save face by not openly exposing our intentions all of the time. It seems that for people with autism, that part of language is very difficult. People with autism might prefer to have a clear, stable meaning over time.

What do the results of the pronoun study tell us about how autism affects language?

When linguistic symbols are seemingly more transparent or easily understood, that doesn't necessarily mean they'll be easier to use. That's one thing we know from studying pronouns in sign language as opposed to speech. But it's still somewhat mysterious.

What are you working on now?

We know deaf parents are great at regulating children's visual attention. They have many innovative strategies for getting their deaf kids' attention that hearing parents, frankly, are lousy at. Deaf parents have ways of getting in their kids’ faces. They will move their signing out of the normal space in front of their body and into the child's line of vision, for example.

I'm very curious to know what deaf parents of kids with autism are doing to gain their children's attention, because attention is such an issue for those children. I think at the heart of this is something about attention, and attention leading to engagement. Deaf parents might be an invaluable resource. They might be innovating strategies intuitively because of the way they interact with the world.

What did the deaf parents you worked with think of your research?

They welcomed me into their homes. The parents were very happy that someone was interested in their child. Unfortunately, there just hasn't been enough work in this area. Even at state schools for the deaf, there's not always a staff person who has any training in autism or other special needs. Many families will move to a different state if there's a deaf school that can accommodate their child's special needs. I know families who have moved to Texas, for example, because the Texas School for the Deaf has a special-needs department.

[The parents] can be desperate for answers. I had to make it clear that I didn't necessarily know what the best thing for their child would be. I felt bad that I could not answer all of their questions; I’m a researcher, not a clinician. I'm hoping the things we discover through research will inform clinical practice and intervention, but these families are living the reality every day.


© 2016 Emily Benson. Signs of Emily's work appear at erbenson.com.