Winter 2016 Bulletin

Consortium on Autism and Sign Language

The Consortium on Autism and Sign Language (CASL) gathered at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences on December 12 and 13, 2015, for a conference sponsored by the Academy’s Exploratory Fund. CASL gathered scholars from diverse fields and individuals from stakeholder communities to gain an understanding of the nature of communication in populations for whom it may otherwise be difficult. The meeting participants advanced novel hypotheses about the emergence of communication in autism by leveraging methods and insights from sign language research. The participants included Academy Fellows Mark Aronoff (Stony Brook University), Susan Goldin-Meadow (University of Chicago), Paul Harris (Harvard Graduate School of Education), Nancy Kanwisher (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), Charles Nelson (Harvard Medical School), David Perlmutter (University of California, San Diego), and Mrikanga Sur (Massachusetts Institute of Technology).

The topics discussed in the individual presentations and roundtable panels included whether the precision hypothesis – the preference for precision over efficacy of communication in autism – is valid across developmental levels of autism; and whether precision in autistic communication may be as much culturally as developmentally conditioned. Divergent goals in communication may explain precision differences: an individual with autism may aim to be precise while typically developing individuals might value using other aspects of perspective to achieve simpler communication. Cultural differences framed the discussions of social-developmental trajectories in autism. Stereotypical characteristics of autism, such as avoidance of eye contact, which is seen as abnormal in most westernized cultures, is common in other cultures. The discussions provided a new framework for considering the potential uniqueness of social-developmental trajectories in autism on a global scale.

The conference achieved its goals by allowing dialogue among individuals from multiple disciplines to better inform each field’s research: by looking at language and communication from different angles the participants gained a better understanding of communication in deaf and autistic individuals. The conference also provided a venue for members of autistic and deaf communities to be active contributors to the dialogue. It was made clear by both scholars and individuals with autism that the voices of the communities being studied need to be heard. A series of research questions developed during the meeting will inform the Consortium’s next conference.

The Exploratory Fund was created to respond to ideas from Academy members who want to work together to discuss ideas and opportunities not well understood. In the coming months, the Academy will convene Exploratory Fund meetings on topics such as the preservation of intellectual legacies, the relationship between area and global studies, integrating scientific expertise into the legal system, and the future of jazz. Please contact the Academy if you have questions about the Exploratory Fund.