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Auteur: Aaron SHIELD

Spatial Grammar Constructions in Deaf Signing Children with Autism

Abstract/Résumé: Recent work (Szymanski et al, 2012) found that 1 in 59 deaf and hard of hearing children in the United States carry a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a prevalence higher than that of the general population (1 in 88; CDC, 2012). The effect of ASD on sign language acquisition is of great interest because several of the social skills known to be impaired in ASD are crucial for sign acquisition (e.g., perspective-taking). Studying the signing of deaf children with ASD thus has the potential to shed new light on the effects of ASD on language and cognition more broadly. Previous work on gesture imitation by hearing children with ASD has consistently found that such children have a gesture imitation deficit (Williams, et al, 2004 for a review); specifically, these children have been found to imitate the gestures of others as observed from their perspective, thus reversing the gesture’s palm orientation and the movement direction. This finding has led to the suggestion that a “self-other mapping” deficit is characteristic of ASD (Rogers & Pennington, 1991). In one of the first studies of deaf children with ASD exposed to sign from birth, Shield (2010) and Shield and Meier (2012) found that these children also exhibited a tendency to reverse palm orientation, not only in the imitation of nonsense gestures, but also in the spontaneous and elicited production of lexical signs (e.g., nouns), and in fingerspelled letters. In the current study, deaf native-signing American children diagnosed with an ASD between the ages of 4-12 were compared to a mental- and chronological-age-matched cohort of typically-developing (TD) deaf native-signing children on a sign language task targeting one spatial grammar construction: classifier predicates. It was hypothesized that children with ASD would make significantly more errors on classifier predicates involving horizontal and lateral motions (which depend on perspective-taking skills) than on predicates involving vertical motions (which do not). Preliminary results show that a self-other mapping deficit in autism extends into the comprehension and production of classifier predicate structures. This finding suggests that a general cognitive deficit in self-other mapping in ASD extends into the linguistic realm, despite lifetime exposure to sign. Furthermore it demonstrates that the underlying cognitive deficits of ASD could lead to different surface effects in the signed and spoken language modalities.