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Helping Autistic Adults Navigate Social Situations Through the Power of Language

 
 

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)** is frequently considered a childhood condition, despite the fact that it persists, sometimes undiagnosed, throughout a person’s life. This myth makes it challenging for autistic adults to receive a diagnosis, access appropriate services, and be included in research or intervention studies.

Recognizing this disparity, scientists from the Center for Autism Research (CAR) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) are actively providing research opportunities, as well as support and resources, to adults with ASD. For the scientists at CAR’s Quantitative Linguistics Lab (QL2), the goal is to analyze data from thousands of vocal samples to identify a language marker to evaluate treatment success.

Many (sometimes subtle) aspects of spoken language impact how individuals develop and maintain social relationships. How fast a person speaks, for example, and how well they match the speech rate of their conversational partner, has been shown to be associated with feelings of rapport. Since speech rate and rate matching are skills that can be built through targeted interventions, the QL2 team collaborated with Dr. Edward S. Brodkin, from the University of Pennsylvania, to assess if the effectiveness of a social skills treatment intervention for adults with ASD can be measured via changes in speech rate. Presented at the 2018 International Society for Autism Research conference, they found that following the intervention, autistic adults did in fact increase their rate of speech, and no longer differed from their conversational partners. Identifying subtle linguistic markers like speech rate could provide clinicians with a simple way to determine whether or not an intervention is effectively building the skills that individuals with ASD need to navigate social interactions confidently. “These preliminary results suggest the potential of using natural interactions to assess treatment response, since they have the advantage of being easily and inexpensively repeatable,” says Dr. Julia Parish-Morris.

Autistic individuals often struggle with echolalia, otherwise known as repetitive or restricted language. During conversations, echolalia can take on two types: immediate or delayed. In immediate echolalia, autistic individuals repeat the word or phrase they just heard. With delayed echolalia, an individual may repeat words or phrases they previous heard or learned, such as repeating commercials or making a need known by repeating a question (“Would you like something to eat?” instead of “I’m hungry”).  Hoping to better understand how the repetitive behavior dimension of ASD might manifest in the linguistic domain, the QL2 team utilized computer vision and computational linguistics. They found that in naturalistic conversations, adults with ASD produced less variable language, as well as less variable mouth movements. As with speech rate, participation in an intervention could help teach individuals with ASD skills to reduce repetitive and restricted language during conversation – or increase linguistic diversity. Thus, for both clinicians and researchers, the severity of an autistic individual’s speech and language diversity before and after a social skills intervention could be used as an objective maker of the intervention’s effectiveness.

QL2 is committed to on-going and in-depth analysis of language and acoustic data, with the hope that their efforts will lead to powerful new tools that can be used to evaluate, monitor, and ultimately inform real-world interventions to improve everyday functioning in autism and other conditions across the lifespan.

 

** Please note, CAR uses both person-first and identity- first language. Recent research has demonstrated that “autistic” is the preferred term in the autism community, with many others preferring “on the autism spectrum” or “person with autism” (Kenny et al., 2016, "Which terms should be used to describe autism? Perspectives from the UK autism community" Autism).