Autism: "Hello" Is the Worst Place to Start


Last week I gave a talk at the Autism Research Centre (ARC) at Cambridge University about cultivating speech in nonverbal children with autism. The talk was designed as an outline of our work so far on the theoretical methodology we intend to test, refine, and implement in a series of tools for nonverbal children with autism. This is part of an ongoing collaboration between Linguisticator and the ARC. So far, we have not run any tests so the talk was essentially the presentation of a hypothesis. What are the parts and pieces of language we need to teach and how can we gain traction in nonverbal children with autism for each piece?

I began the talk by pointing out something that should be obvious, but isn't really obvious at all. When you learn a new language what is the first word you are likely to learn? As an adult, the answer is almost always, Hello. First words vary for babies, but parents often try to teach their children greetings or relationship words like Mama or Dada.

Knowing what we know about autism, these are terrible starting points for cultivating speech in nonverbal autistic children.

The word hello is somewhat difficult to classify grammatically. It's not a thing (noun) nor is it an action (verb). Hello is an exclamation or particle. It doesn't mean anything specifically when you think about it. Its meaning is bound to the social interaction of greeting, and there is a certain degree of fluctuation in semantics. “Meaning” itself is almost irrelevant, as hello really forms part of a ritualized exchange in which the presence of oral interaction takes precedence over what is actually said. In other words, the interaction or exchange of greetings is what's important, rather than the word itself.

For an autistic child learning to speak, hello presents a number of challenges. While it is difficult to generalize about autistic people, some things are generally true: those with autism struggle most with social interactions and prefer concrete details to abstractions. Hello is both highly social and highly abstract. It is therefore a terrible starting point for teaching nonverbal children with autism.

Words like Mama or Dada are somewhat better, but still not ideal from a theoretical standpoint. These are relational words - unlike a fixed name, Mama refers to one person from your perspective and a different person from mine.

Parents do not normally have to think about these grammatical and sociolinguistic complexities as non-autistic children filter for them unconsciously. If we are working to cultivate speech in nonverbal children with autism, however, we will need to examine every element of language. We need to separate language out into its component parts and examine how nonverbal children with autism can learn each individual component and then begin to put them together. This includes everything from sound production, to grammatical relationships, to social rituals.

We are working on developing and refining our proposed progression in terms of developing sound production and combination, attaching of sound and meaning, and understanding patterns in words and speech. Though exchanging simple greetings may be high on the list of what many parents want to do with their autistic children, hello is a difficult place to start and may only be attainable after several other stepping-stones.

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