ESTHER SHITTU `17
Inge-Marie Eigsti, an associate professor at University College gave a lecture about the connection between language and autism called, “Language in Body and Mind in Autism Spectrum Disorders,” on Thursday, Nov. 13.
Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopment disorder that is defined through repetitive behavior patterns, social impairment, and difficulty in communicating. Eigsti said that, years before, ASD was diagnosed through three criteria: social relatedness, language and communication and repetitive formulas, activities and interests. She said that children with autism experience deficits in these three areas. However, the DSMS: a type of diagnostic test for diagnosing autism, later changed the diagnostic criteria and diagnosed autism based only upon social relatedness and repetitive activities.
Eigsti said that the removal of language from the diagnostic test was because social behaviors are important. She said that social and communicative deficits could be revealed in different areas such as language; therefore, in order to understand language, one needs to understand social influence. However, Eigsti does not agree with the removal of language from the criteria for autism. She said that language is influenced by motivation, gesture, and cognitive control and it is not just a social basis of autism. She argued during her lecture that choosing to overlook language is a problem. Therefore, she directed the audience’s attention to Tom Insel’s proposal for diagnosing autism.
According to Eigsti, Insel proposed the Research Domain Criteria, an experimental approach to the way that mental disorders such as autism are classified. In a post on March 6, 2012 on the National Institute of Mental Health website, Insel writes, “[RDoC] is not simply about finding links between the social deficits of people with autism and people with social anxiety. RDoC uses genetics, imaging, and cognitive science for understanding deficits in social behavior.” Eigsti said that RDoC wants to make a link between brain and behavior. This does not only focus on social behaviors but on language as well.
Eigsti continued her lecture by talking about language in ASD. In her presentation, she notes that 10 to 15 percent of people with autism diagnosis are non-verbal in terms of communication. She said that there is a significant delay in acquisition for those who do speak. The kids who are born with this normally take two years before they are able to speak their first words. This also means that those who have autism also have delays in acquisition in terms of syntax and morphology. There is also a struggle because of impaired pragmatics. This means that those with ASD are unable to use eye contact in determining who will speak next when they are in a conversation. Those with autism also struggle with non-literal language as well as non-verbal gestures.
According to Eigsti, there are patients who have an optimal outcomes for recovery from ASD. She said that these patients were diagnosis before the age of five by an expert. They experience no current ASD symptoms, their IQ skills are in normal range and they are in regular education class. In other words, these people who are the optimal outcomes look fine socially and many people would not consider them to be autistic. She then went on to present the experiments that were done between the children who were considered optimal outcomes and those who were autistic.
Eigsti said that one of the areas that was tested was the perpetual tuning to speech contrast. She said that early in development many children are able to perceive contrast in speech. However, by the time babies reach 12 months, they are only able to hear the contrast that is present in their own native language. She said that many infants would have discovered by that time what dimensions are important to their language. Based on the experiment, it was discovered that pitch perception is stronger in people with ASD. She said that more language delay equals better pitch discrimination.
She spoke of a young boy who came to her office. The boy asked her if he could use the bathroom. When he finished using the bathroom, he told her that her bathroom is really interesting. Her response was an internal panic because she was not sure whether something strange had in fact happened to her toilet or not. Therefore, she asked cautiously expecting the worst as to why her toilet was interesting. The small boy told her that his toilet at home flushes in F sharp, while her toilet flushes in B minor.
Eigsti continues that in terms of gestures, those with ASD have always been thought to not use gestures even though gestures are normally used as a means of communication. She disputes this by saying that the data is much more complicated than that.
Data shows that there is there is no coordination between gesture and speech. She gives the example of Nikita Khrushchev, a cold war Russian leader, who had yelled the words, “WE WILL BURY YOU,” while banging the table with one of his shoes that he had removed, at the United Nations. Eigsti said that Nikita Khrushchev was able to coordinate his angry gesture with what he was saying. However, for an autistic child, the angry words will not fit the gestures. They would not be able to coordinate their gestures to fit their words.
The purpose of Eigsti’s lecture is to prove that language is a very important criterion when diagnosing autism. Also, many of the preconceived ideas about autistic children are disproved by data. Eigsti is affiliated with the University of Connecticut NSF Training Grant on Language Plasticity. She became interested in the topic of autism because she feels that it is a fascinating disorder with a lot of homogeneity. She also said that that with autism, it is possible to make genuine practical advances that can help children.