Linguisticator Teams up with the Autism Research Centre

Linguisticator has teamed up with Cambridge University's Autism Research Centre to help develop tools for non-verbal children with autism to learn to speak. We have been discussing and refining the project over the last several months, and are kicking it off fully now that we are into the new year.

Those with autism often suffer from various challenges, including speech. On the higher end of functional autism, one might find the social aspects of language challenging: when do you speak, when do you remain silent, how much do you say, how do you choose a topic? Social cues, body language, and the issue of speech register can all be difficult. On the lower end of the spectrum, many suffer from a complete inability to speak. In our initial efforts in this collaboration, we will focus on children that belong to this group: completely non-verbal.

In order to be as successful as possible, we will need to address a number of psychological and linguistic factors involved in producing language. By collaborating with the Autism Research Centre, we can pool our respective expertise: the ARC will be providing the knowledge of autism and psychology, while Linguisticator will be providing the linguistic and language learning knowledge necessary to develop effective tools.

Linguisticator specializes in organizing, categorizing, and fully mapping out the components of language, then providing a means for adult and young adult learners to actually master those components. This will be key in our work on autism. If you consider language as a single, tangled mass, it is virtually impossible to develop a methodological approach that will overcome the challenges in working with non-verbal children with autism. By separating each component of language exhaustively, we can then examine how different people learn those components, and how we might create new approaches to teaching non-verbal children with autism.

There are many tools available to help children - and, indeed, even adults - with autism communicate. We are looking to help non-verbal children learn to speak, rather than to provide a different form of communication. Many of the existing tools put forward an alternate means of communicating, often by combinations of images that can be tapped on a tablet. We want to provide tools to help children actually start producing and using recognizable and meaningful utterances.

This project came about largely by chance, and is a testament to why I love living in Cambridge and making it my base of operations. Over the summer, I ran a memory workshop for some of my friends. A week or two later, I ran into one of those friends in a café and he introduced me to David Greenberg, who was finishing up his PhD under the supervision of Professor Simon Baron-Cohen. Professor Baron-Cohen heads up the Autism Research Centre and is recognized as one of the leading experts in autism globally. David, who specializes in music, explained that he and Simon were looking for someone who could help them create tools for non-verbal children with autism. Within a few days, we all met at the ARC and started discussing options. Since then, David has completed his PhD and we've fleshed out a progression for the project.

We are still in the early stages, working to bash out a few prototypes of different methodologies, which we'd eventually be able to build into a series of tools. At the moment, we're not yet sure any of this will actually work, but it is a strong collaboration and very much worth going for. Over the coming months, we'll be working to secure funding to help us develop the methodologies and tools we're looking to create, then actually trial them through the ARC.

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