A study into the relationship between language and autism

by Mike Grimshaw

(Mike won the Routledge Prize for the best language project 2013 for this piece of work)

I have spent my entire life surrounded by children and adults with learning difficulties, many of whom have been diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs). Having spent the last five years working both full-time and part-time with autistic children, I developed an interest in the complex and fascinating nature of their language use.

I decided to focus my Linguistics Project on the relationship between autism and language. Although a great deal of research has been carried out on autism and language, there are still so many doors that have yet to be opened, as it is a field that is riddled with diversity. The aim of my project was not to discover something unique, but rather to gain a richer understanding of the way in which autism typically affects the use of language, particularly by children.

The initial stage was to compile a broad overview of the literature on the subject, through which a checklist was produced containing linguistic characteristics that are commonly associated with ASDs. This list included features such as echolalia, repetition, flouting Grice’s maxims, zoning out and difficulties with pragmatics. Data was gathered by recording two autistic children, aged 12 and 13, in conversation with their support workers. Once the data had been transcribed, an analysis was conducted, comparing and contrasting the children’s use of language in conjunction with the checklist.

The analysis suggested that, while there is significant variation from one individual to another regarding frequency and magnitude, those with autism do indeed appear to share a similar atypical use of language. It fascinated me how individuals with autism appear to acquire a similar set of linguistic traits that are common across the spectrum, yet without ever having ‘learned’ them. It is almost as if they know each other, and speak a unique language to which outsiders cannot fully relate.

When analyzing the transcripts, it became apparent that, while the language of the children was interesting, there were equally intriguing linguistic techniques employed by the support workers. Their language was clearly tailored, and it was demonstrable that they knew the children well and were thus able to communicate on their level. Would it be possible, therefore, to conduct an analysis on the language used by carers, and to create a guide that could be given those whose lives are affected by autism?

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3 comments

  1. Mike, well done for winning the prize!! 🙂 Besides that, I think your topic is very interesting, I’d like to hear more about it at some point.. 🙂

  2. Hello Mike, Kudos on exploring this important and understudied topic. I would love to read your study. Could you tell me where to find it? Did you happen to observe any peer to peer language with your subjects? Best, Sarah

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