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Wednesday, April 3, 2024

Nonspeaking Does Not Mean Nonverbal

In The Politics of Autism, I discuss the growing number of college students on the spectrum.   Some are nonspeaking.

 Jaswal, V. K., Lampi, A. J., & Stockwell, K. M. (2024). Literacy in nonspeaking autistic people. Autism, 0(0).  Lay abstract:

Many autistic people who do not talk cannot tell other people what they know or what they are thinking. As a result, they might not be able to go to the schools they want, share feelings with friends, or get jobs they like. It might be possible to teach them to type on a computer or tablet instead of talking. But first, they would have to know how to spell. Some people do not believe that nonspeaking autistic people can learn to spell. We did a study to see if they can. We tested 31 autistic teenagers and adults who do not talk much or at all. They played a game on an iPad where they had to tap flashing letters. After they played the game, we looked at how fast they tapped the letters. They did three things that people who know how to spell would do. First, they tapped flashing letters faster when the letters spelled out sentences than when the letters made no sense. Second, they tapped letters that usually go together faster than letters that do not usually go together. This shows that they knew some spelling rules. Third, they paused before tapping the first letter of a new word. This shows that they knew where one word ended and the next word began. These results suggest that many autistic people who do not talk can learn how to spell. If they are given appropriate opportunities, they might be able to learn to communicate by typing.

From the article:

Our task was an indirect measure of literacy. The reaction time patterns we documented show that participants were sensitive to orthographic conventions. But it is important to note that participants demonstrated this competence by anticipating the spelling of sentences as they unfolded; participants did not generate sentences themselves. An important question for future work will be investigating why, given this underlying orthographic competence, most nonspeaking autistic people do not learn to express themselves in writing. As suggested earlier, part of the challenge is lack of opportunity because of underestimation of nonspeaking autistic people’s capacity to acquire literacy (e.g. Mirenda, 2003). The significant proprioceptive and motor challenges that many nonspeaking autistic people face can also interfere with learning to write by hand or type using conventional interfaces (e.g. Gernsbacher, 2004; Leary & Donnellan, 1995; Torres et al., 2013). Thus, another important area for future work will be leveraging advances in technology to create accessible and customizable communication interfaces as well as opportunities to practice the skills required to use them (Alabood et al., 2023; Krishnamurthy et al., 2022).