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Conference Unites Autism and Sign Language Experts


About a half-century ago, William C. Stokoe Jr. of Gallaudet University advanced the argument that American Sign Language (ASL) is a legitimate language in its own right. The result was a sea change in the recognition and support of Deaf communication and culture.

Presenter Aaron Shield responds to a question about his research efforts with Deaf children with autism.

Inspired by Stokoe and the study of sign language, Stony Brook University is conducting a first-ever interdisciplinary research effort to create a new paradigm for the study of social communication in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). It started at the Charles B. Wang Center last December with a conference — Conversations on Autism and Sign Language (CASL).

“CASL is unprecedented. Nobody has ever tried to look at autistic communication using the study of sign language as a model,” said Mark Aronoff, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Linguistics, who worked in tandem to organize the conference with Matthew Lerner, assistant professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics and director of Stony Brook’s Social Competence and Treatment Lab.

“The conference was a great success, mostly because it brought people together who really had not been able to talk with each other at this level.”

For CASL, Aronoff and Lerner convened 15 scholars from several U.S. colleges and universities who specialize in ASL linguistics and ASD social communication, and represent relevant fields like psychology, disability studies and anthropology.

The two-day collaboration first asked attendees to present their individual efforts, which outlined both the history of sign language linguistics and the status quo of ASD social communication. Once a common ground was established, all worked in closed breakout sessions to define specific theoretical and methodological goals and tactics. Finally, the diverse group planned ongoing multidisciplinary preliminary studies and grant submissions.

Mark Aronoff, SUNY Distinguished Professor of Linguistics, left, with Matthew Lerner, assistant professor of psychology, psychiatry and pediatrics and director of Stony Brook’s Social Competence and Treatment Lab.

“The most interesting aspect of CASL was that a number of participants self-identify as autistic,” said Aronoff. “They’re academics — professors of English, psychology, various fields — who addressed a lot of uncommon questions from the perspective of somebody who is autistic.”

Noah Britton, adjunct professor of psychology at Bunker Hill Community College in Boston was one participating scholar who self-identifies as autistic.

“This conference felt more useful than any other group meeting I’ve had about autism because everyone had similar goals, and most came from an inside-out study of autism/deafness, which I think is much more valuable and accurate than the outside-in perspective shared by most scientists,” said Britton.

Britton recognized another participant, Aaron Shield, for his key presentation.

“Aaron Shield’s work really brought the whole thing together and showed us how deafness and autism are similar, culturally. My favorite moment was when he showed us the deaf autistics’ sign-copying errors, and it made me realize that autistics are interested in precision rather than communication,” said Britton. “This makes me want to figure out how to convince autistics to precisely communicate, rather than simply replicating actions.”

Shield is a postdoctoral research associate in the Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders at Emerson College and visiting researcher in the Department of Brain and Psychological Sciences at Boston University.

“This conference fundamentally altered my perspective on doing research on autism in a number of important ways,” said Shield, explaining that partnering with scholars with autism was revelatory. “CASL helped me understand the value of a ‘strengths-based’ approach to autism — looking at the skills and strengths that people with autism have — rather than the traditional deficit model, which only defines autism in terms of weaknesses.

Experts in autism and sign language unite at Stony Brook to advance  research into autistic communication.

Joining perspectives from multiple disciplines of study is key to the future of autism research efforts at Stony Brook, confirmed Dennis Choi MD, chair of the Department of Neurology and director of the Neurosciences Institute.

“The Neurosciences Institute exists to facilitate collaboration amongst faculty, especially in different departments,” said Choi during an opening CASL session. “One of our first ongoing actions is to develop a research-focused autism center which involves multiple departments at Stony Brook.”

Collaboration between Stony Brook and external faculty remains valuable, so planning is under way for a follow-up CASL conference this December. The conference will focus on specific social communication issues among people with autism, and how those issues differ from those among the general population.

“We’re trying to inspire an ongoing conversation, and that’s what started at CASL,” said Aronoff.

This April is Autism Awareness Month, so conversations about autism are in the spotlight.

“During Autism Awareness Month, people around the country will organize to ensure wider understanding and appreciation of people with autism and their families,” said Lerner. “With CASL, and the work that will follow from it, we aim to help ensure that deeper understanding and appreciation is achieved in the communities of people for whom autism matters most.”


– Brian Smith

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