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The Use of Sign Language Pronouns by Native-Signing Children with Autism

Abstract

We report the first study on pronoun use by an under-studied research population, children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exposed to American Sign Language from birth by their deaf parents. Personal pronouns cause difficulties for hearing children with ASD, who sometimes reverse or avoid them. Unlike speech pronouns, sign pronouns are indexical points to self and other. Despite this transparency, we find evidence from an elicitation task and parental report that signing children with ASD avoid sign pronouns in favor of names. An analysis of spontaneous usage showed that all children demonstrated the ability to point, but only children with better-developed sign language produced pronouns. Differences in language abilities and self-representation may explain these phenomena in sign and speech.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    Exceptions are the ASL signs we and our (Meier 1990).

  2. 2.

    As is conventional, we denote ASL signs with their English translations in small caps.

  3. 3.

    The linguistic status of personal pronouns in ASL and other signed languages has been a matter of continuing controversy (Cormier et al. 2013; McBurney 2002; Meier 1990; Meier and Lillo-Martin 2010). However, ASL unequivocally has points to self and points to addressee; for the purpose of this paper we label these points as first- and second-person pronouns.

  4. 4.

    Signed English is a system of manual signs that follows English grammar and thus is not considered an independent language.

  5. 5.

    We use non-parametric tests throughout this paper because assumptions of normality are violated.

  6. 6.

    We use Cohen’s d as a measure of effect size when comparing two means; a value greater than 0.8 typically represents a large effect.

  7. 7.

    A sign that functions as a unique name for a person, often invented by Deaf parents (Supalla 1992).

  8. 8.

    We also analyzed whether the group differences were significant in terms of who responded with names and who did not (rather than who produced pronouns and who did not), since some children produced both in their answer. The group difference was again significant under this criterion for both the first-person task (Fisher’s Exact Test, p < .05, one-tailed) and the second-person task (Fisher’s Exact Test, p < .0001, one-tailed).

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Acknowledgments

The authors thank J. Pyers and R. Hoffmeister for help with the study design, S. Butler Koestler and D. Mood for conducting the ADOS evaluations, B. Makofske for evaluating clinical impression, T. Sampson and M. Gandhi for coding data, A. Marks for taking photos, F. Ramont for modeling signs, and the schools, parents, administrators, teachers, and children who made this research possible. This study was supported by a postdoctoral fellowship to the first author from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (Grant Number #F32-DC011219) and a research enhancement grant from the Autism Science Foundation to the first author.

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Correspondence to Aaron Shield.

Appendix

Appendix

Modifications to the ADOS-2 Administered to Deaf Participants

In order to administer the ADOS-2 to children who are deaf and communicate using ASL, several modifications were made. The test authors (Lord et al. 2012) clearly indicate that the ADOS-2 is not intended to be used with children with hearing loss. However, the ADOS-2 is commonly used in clinical practice among professionals trained in working with children who are deaf or hard of hearing, in order to gather information regarding social communication and behavior in a semi-structured format. Currently, there are no published best-practice guidelines regarding appropriate modifications to the ADOS-2 when used with this population. For the purposes of this study, modifications were made based on the examiner’s clinical experience. Where possible, every effort was made to adhere as closely as possible to standardized test procedures. Otherwise, modifications that were made were intended to be consistent across subjects. The following describes the modifications that were made regarding (1) module selection; (2) task selection and administration; and (3) scoring.

Module Selection

In order to administer the ADOS-2, a module based on the child’s language level must be chosen. It is standard practice in choosing a module to count signs as gestures rather than words. However, doing so would underestimate the language ability of deaf, signing children. Therefore, for the purposes of this study, children’s use of ASL signs was considered equivalent to spoken language and was not scored as being gestures (e.g., two to three signs paired together were considered equivalent to spoken “phrase speech”; combining two thoughts through complex signed phrases was considered equivalent to “fluent speech”). Module selection was therefore based on the examinee’s fluency in sign language (e.g., an examinee communicating only in sign language using complex signed phrases was administered a Module 3, rather than a Module 1 as would be indicated if signs were considered equivalent to gestures).

Task Administration

Due to differences between the modalities of sign and speech, it was also necessary to modify several tasks. Directions for all tasks were translated into ASL. The Response to Name task was administered with modifications. The examiner first presented the examinee’s name sign within their peripheral vision (three times). If the examinee did not respond, attention-getting procedures not involving touch that are typically used within Deaf culture were administered (e.g., tapping on the ground, waving within the individual’s line of sight). If the examinee did not respond, standardized directions for attempting to get the examinee’s attention first by implying they would be tickled and then by tickling them were administered (either by the examiner or a parent, if available).

An effort was made to adhere to standardized procedures for administering Joint Attention. Modifications to standardized statements included using the sign see or look + a head turn, without the directional element of that sign, during initial presses. The sign see was then paired with a point on the last press.

Demonstration Task was modified by fingerspelling elements of directions rather than using signs which were iconic in nature and/or providing an alternative task such as making a bowl of cereal. When it was necessary to administer Anticipation of Social Routine to older children with limited language, the peekaboo task was modified to be more age-appropriate. Signed instructions for Functional Symbolic Imitation were modified incorporating appropriate ASL classifiers to maintain the task’s intention (e.g., airplane + 5 handshape in a forward, flying motion).

Scoring

Modifications to codes and scoring algorithms were also necessary. For the purpose of this paper, only modified codes are reported and only modifications affecting scoring algorithms are reported in the chart (Table 6).

Table 6 Modifications to scoring on the ADOS-2

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Shield, A., Meier, R.P. & Tager-Flusberg, H. The Use of Sign Language Pronouns by Native-Signing Children with Autism. J Autism Dev Disord 45, 2128–2145 (2015). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-015-2377-x

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Keywords

  • Sign language
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Deafness
  • Pronouns
  • Language development