Sign Language and Autism

The Sign Language and Autism at Miami (SL@M) Lab is dedicated to understanding how various populations of children and adults acquire sign language. We are currently engaged in a variety of projects looking especially at how children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) acquire and develop sign language.

First, we are investigating how children with ASD produce facial expressions, since such expressions are crucial to sign language grammar, but children with ASD sometimes have difficulty producing and understanding emotional facial expressions.

Second, we are currently recruiting participants for a new study of hearing children of deaf adults (CODAs) who have ASD. These children are exposed to sign by their Deaf parents but are hearing, so they also are exposed to spoken language. Thus, they are a unique population of bilinguals who speak one language and sign one language. We are interested in whether ASD affects sign and speech in different ways. In the future, we also hope to investigate how Deaf parents interact with their children with ASD, in order to analyze what kinds of strategies they use for attracting, maintaining, and regulating their children’s visual attention.

We hope that the information generated in all of these studies will improve scientific understanding of language acquisition, the relationship between language and social cognition, and provide a foundation for designing new and innovative clinical interventions for children with ASD.

Recent coverage of the lab's work in the press

Dr. Aaron Shield participated in December in the Consortium of Autism and Sign Language (CASL), which met at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in Cambridge, MA. In this talk, titled “Testing the Precision Hypothesis: The USE Model, he introduced a new model of autistic language, which reframes the way that people with autism communicate from a strengths-based perspective.

Dr. Shield presenting at CASL

He also presented two posters at the Theoretical Issues in Sign Language Research conference in January in Melbourne, Australia.

Dr. Shield at one of the posters with his
collaborator, Frances Cooley, a graduate
student in linguistics at the University
of Texas at Austin

More coverage in the press

"Recent studies with children affected by both autism and deafness have yielded new insights into helping these children, while also shedding light on important questions about how autism affects language and social development.

Psycholinguist Aaron Shield, of Miami University of Ohio, discussed his latest findings today at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Shield began his pioneering research at the intersection of autism and deafness as an Autism Speaks Predoctoral Fellowin 2008."

2016 Interview: Aaron Shield, linguist

"Many autistic children struggle with language and social understanding. So what happens when a child with autism converses not in English, but in a signed language—a mode of communicating that depends on gazing into someone else’s face?

Sign language isn’t just a series of hand motions; facial expressions convey crucial information, too. Linguist Aaron Shield, a self-described polyglot who’s now learning Swedish (his ninth language), studies communication by autistic children who are also deaf. This population, Shield says, offers a new way to examine how autism affects language."

Education Week: Studies on Deafness Yield Broader Benefits

"Studying deaf students can give researchers insights into other cognitive issues, such as autism spectrum disorders. In two prior studies (the first two sets of columns below), researchers found that students with autism spectrum disorders tended to use names when asked to identify a picture of themselves or the researcher, while typically developing students used the pronouns “you” or “me.” In 2015, researchers repeated the experiment with deaf students (the third pair of columns); those with autism also used names, even when they were complicated to finger-spell."

Rethinking Child Language Disorders: Insights from Sign Language Research
A blog post (in Swedish) from the University of Stockholm, citing Aaron Shield's work.