Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part IV

(Part IV in a series of posts that will eventually take us to a highly contagious and dangerously inaccurate meme about what autism is.)

So in my previous posts on the subject (starting here), I discussed how Receptive Joint Attention


correlates with language learning, and how reduced Receptive Joint Attention behaviors impede the acquisition of both spoken and written language.  When RJA behaviors are at a minimum, so is the amount of language learned–whether we’re talking about spoken or written language.

What does any of this have to do with autism?

The connection goes back to the clinical definitions of autism: the definitions that guide how psychologists and psychiatrists make their diagnoses. In the U.S., there’s the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM); worldwide, there’s the World Health Organization’s International Classification of Diseases (ICD).

In both these guidelines, Joint Attention figures prominently. The criteria for autism in the most recent DSM (the DSM V), for example, include these:

  • Deficits in social-emotional reciprocity, ranging, for example, from abnormal social approach and failure of normal back-and-forth conversation; to reduced sharing of interests, emotions, or affect; to failure to initiate or respond to social interactions.
  • Deficits in nonverbal communicative behaviors used for social interaction, ranging, for example, from poorly integrated verbal and nonverbal communication; to abnormalities in eye contact and body language or deficits in understanding and use of gestures; to a total lack of facial expressions and nonverbal communication.

And this:

  • Symptoms must be present in the early developmental period.

The things I’ve bold-faced–particularly responding to social interactions and making eye contact–are the sorts of Receptive Joint Attention behaviors that, I argue earlier, are essential for the acquisition of written and spoken language. Reduced RJA behaviors in early development–when language acquisition begins–mean significant limits on language acquisition.

Another of the criteria relates indirectly to Receptive Joint Attention:

  • Highly restricted, fixated interests that are abnormal in intensity or focus (e.g., strong attachment to or preoccupation with unusual objects, excessively circumscribed or perseverative interests).

Highly restrictive interests, combined with a preference for objects over people (which is an early predictor of autism in infants), is one reason for reduced Receptive Joint Attention behaviors in autism.

Here is one more DSM guideline:

  • Severity is based on social communication impairments and restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior.

Collectively, what all this means is that the more severe the autism, the more limited the acquisition of spoken and written language. At its most severe, autism means total lack of language–a.k.a. non-verbal autism.

But for some people, severe/non-verbal autism has come to mean something completely different… Stay tuned.

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