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Consortium on Autism and Sign Language (CASL): Developing Tools for an Emerging Discipline

In collaboration with the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the NLM Family Foundation provided support for the second annual Consortium on Autism and Sign Language (CASL), held on December 12 and 13, 2015 in Cambridge, MA. This two-day symposium brought together nationally known researchers in two areas: sign language linguistics and the study of social communication among individuals with autism spectrum disorders.

In bringing together scholars from diverse fields and individuals from stakeholder communities, CASL gained an understanding of the nature of communication in populations for whom it may otherwise be difficult. The CASL meeting allowed academic diversity to advance novel hypotheses about the emergence of communication in autism by leveraging methods and insights from sign language research.

CASL focused on further developing hypotheses from the inaugural 2014 conference, including the precision hypothesis and the structure and content of social-developmental trajectories. Some participants questioned whether the precision hypothesis, the preference for precision over efficacy of communication in autism, is valid across developmental levels of autism. Precision is also contextually dependent, which raises the question whether precision in autistic communication may be as much culturally as developmentally conditioned. Divergent goals in communication may explain precision differences; an individual with autism may aim to be precise, while typically-developing individuals might value using other aspects of perspective to achieve simpler communication. Discussions of social-developmental trajectories in autism were framed by cultural differences. Stereotypical characteristics of autism, such as avoidance of eye contact and differences in joint attention, which are seen as abnormal in westernized cultures, are common in other cultures. This provides a new framework for considering the potential uniqueness of social-developmental trajectories in autism on a global scale.

The conference achieved its goals by allowing dialogue among multiple disciplines to better inform each field’s research: individuals from the fields of autism and deaf communication learned from each other with the hopes of better understanding their own field as well as integrating fields. The conference also provided a venue for members of autistic and deaf communities to be active contributors in this interdisciplinary dialogue. It was made clear by both scholars and individuals with autism that voices of the communities being studied need to be heard in research. Finally, breakout groups developed research questions that, before the next conference, may be empirically explored via active collaboration among participants.

Please click on the link below to view a more detailed summary of the discussions which took place at the conference.

Consortium on Autism and Sign Language (CASL): Developing Tools for an Emerging Discipline