Artificial Intelligence–does it really understand what we’ve said?

Today I had my monthly zoom meeting with my linguistic colleagues, and we found ourselves talking about artificial intelligence. One of my colleagues, Debbie Dahl, recently wrote, along with Christy Doran, an editorial for Speech Technology Magazine entitled “Does your Intelligent Assistant Really Understand you?”

To address this, they put together a list of queries of the sort one might ask of an intelligent assistant like, say, Siri or Alexa.

Here are some examples of what happened.

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We’re now live at ResearchEd2020!

This year’s conference is online, and our talk, Using intuitive “information-integration” learning to teach language to autistic and L2 students online has just gone live.

Catherine teaches us about the two learning systems (implicit vs. rule-based learning), with a fascinating discussion of the Iowa Gambling Task. Turning to my SentenceWeaver program, we then talk about how the two learning systems relate to the syntax and pragmatics of questions and pronouns.  We also show some videos of the program in action, including of the brand-new animated Pronouns Module, and of Catherine’s non-verbal son acing his way through the Questions Module.

The video should be available indefinitely.

Facilitating Un-facilitated Communication in Autism

My two hour talk on this charged topic is going live at 5:00 PM EST today, available any time after that:

There’ll be a live q & a on Monday, and I’m hoping someone will bring up a paper, just published in Nature of all places, that appears to provide empirical support for a particular type of facilitated communication:

I’ve had an… interesting exchange with Dan Willingham on twitter about paper:


Basic grammar vs. “school grammar”

I still need wrap up my Structured Word Inquiry series (from last November!) with at least one more post, but some of the more recent twitter chatter on SWI has brought up a broader issue that I thought I’d address first. That would be the question of which aspects of grammar actually need to be taught to students who are native English speakers.

To address this question, it’s useful to draw a distinction between “basic grammar” and “school grammar.”

Basic grammar is the stuff that native speakers, assuming they don’t have language impairments/autism, pick up incidentally without formal instruction. This includes everyday vocabulary, word order, and word endings (morphology), and syllabification. Absent language impairments, native speakers, do not, for example, need to be taught that “crumb” and “crumbs” and “do” and “does” are related, or that we say “no bananas” rather than “no banana”–contrary to what some SWI proponents have suggested on twitter:

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Facilitated Communication: up close and personal

Time for my promised close, critical look at specific instances of facilitated communication—FC for short.

But first, a preliminary note.  In being critical in what is an extremely sensitive area, I don’t want to reveal names of kids and parents. I’ll provide links to material that’s been made publicly available–stuff posted on the Internet, mostly by or in collaboration with family members. But in what I write here, I’ll be avoiding names or abbreviating them.

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Why is Facilitated Communication making a comeback? (Part II–a very bleak post)

It’s now time, in this series on autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, to return to two key criteria for autism in the most recent DSM (the DSM V), each of them tapping into deficits in what’s called Joint Attention:

  • 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.

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Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part VII

(Part VII 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 posts, I’ve made the following points:

–How much language you acquire, including how much language you comprehend, is correlated with how much attention you’ve paid, over the years, to other people’s speech and to what they are looking at and doing when speaking.

–Deficits in these attention behaviors, which are examples of what’s called Joint Attention, are among the core symptoms of autism. (If you don’t have deficits here, the diagnosis doesn’t apply).

–Therefore, the ability to acquire language and understand what other people saying is correlated with the severity of autism.

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Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part V

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

My previous post drew a connection between the severity of autism (whose diagnostic measures include Joint Attention behaviors) and the severity of the language impairment associated with autism. This connection, I suggested, explains why a significant proportion of people on the spectrum (somewhere around 25%) are nonverbal.

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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?

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Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part III

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

Let’s begin here by augmenting the scenario discussed in part II: Imagine yourself going to another country where you don’t know the language and spending several years there seemingly immersed in that language, and that:

  1. all your basic needs are taken care, such that you don’t actually need to interact with anyone, and
  2. for whatever reason, you mostly choose not to interact with anyone, even passively, such that:
  3. even as you hear the syllables coming out of people’s mouths, you manage to hardly ever pay attention to what those who utter these syllables are doing, looking at, or otherwise attending to.

In this situation, I argued, you would learn very little of the spoken language.

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Autism, neurodiversity, and language learning, Part I

Recent events—including the publicity surrounding the movie “Far from the Tree” and a highly contagious and dangerously inaccurate meme about what autism is–have me bursting with things to say about autism and language learning. There’s way too much for one post, and it’s hard to know where to begin.

So I’ll begin where it all begins: Joint Attention.

This is what Joint Attention looks like:


In words: two or more people attending the same thing.

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