Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part VI

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

In my previous post, I discussed how there might be factors besides Joint Attention deficits that could contribute to the failure to acquire spoken language. As I wrote:

in some cases the primary culprit for lack of spoken language may be apraxia of speech rather than autism-related Joint Attention deficits. If so, then the autism itself may be relatively mild. In particular, the person’s receptive Joint Attention behaviors, along with his/her ability to pay attention to what people are doing when they speak, may be only mildly impaired. In this case, he or she should be able to acquire receptive language–to learn to understand what people say–even if he or can’t speak.

What this means is that the inability to speak doesn’t entail the inability to produce other forms of language–for example, written language or sign language.

Conversely (and not so surprisingly) the inability to write or use sign language doesn’t entail the inability to speak. Perhaps you no one has taught you how to read, write, or sign. Perhaps you have a visual impairment. Or perhaps you have a fine motor impairment that impedes writing, signing, or even typing.

While the last possibility–a fine motor impairment that impedes typing– is relatively rare, fine motor impairments can be co-morbid with autism.

So while autism at its severest levels (as I argued earlier) means being unable produce language in any medium, mild autism doesn’t necessarily mean the opposite. Theoretically, you could have someone who is tuned in enough (via Receptive Joint Attention) to acquire receptive language, but so severely apraxic and so severely impaired in their fine motor skills that they are unable to speak, sign, or type indepedently. Theoretically, you could have someone who understands everything they hear or read but still can’t produce, on their own, any language in any medium.

And, while it seems like such individuals would be highly atypical, even within autism, a slew of recent news reports, books, and movies would have us believe otherwise. Stay tuned for a closer look.

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