Search This Blog

Sunday, March 17, 2013

ASD Adults and Life-long Language Learning

One of my strong interests when I went through graduate school for speech pathology was the connection between the brain (neurology) and language learning.

At that time (early 1980's), conventional wisdom in the field of neurolinguistics was that there was a defined window for language acquisition. Scientific studies of people who lost language skills because of acquired brain damage (resulting from something like a head injury or stroke) showed patients had a different capacity for language learning, depending on their age - pre-puberty the brain was plastic and had a good ability to relearn language skills, but post-puberty that learning window seemed to close.

I never really questioned this until several years later when I started working with adolescents and young adults on the autism spectrum. Everyone was post-puberty and many had severely limited verbal language skills, with some completely non-verbal. I found myself mixing my clinical experience with stroke victims (including the use of non-conventional communication means like drawing) into my language development therapy techniques. And I learned an interesting thing: the neuroplasticity necessary for new language learning that was not supposed to exist in this population, did exist. Many of the students desperately wanted to crack the code of conventional communication, and their brains were capable. The limiting factor was more me than them - I could see the potential, but was only beginning to discover the tools that might be effective to bridge that communication gap.

Fast forward a couple of decades and I have more tools in my therapy toolbox - my ASD students have been my teachers, and working with the same individuals over time has taught me some very important things about language learning and ASD:

1. The early years may not be optimal for language learning because neural pathways are developing in a different way at a different pace - if the world is a screaming wall of sound, you can't pick out the words.

2. Written words can help to sort out the string of sounds at the ear, so the person can begin to make sense out of auditory language.

3. Drawing can be a clarifying communication tool that helps therapists/teachers/parents to explain and highlight important information about everyday life, and that can help ASD individuals to explain their perspective and experience of the world.

4. Most importantly, language learning is a life-long process and significant language learning can happen in the adult years, so don't give up trying to reach and teach.

And so for today, an illustration of point #4: 

Adam (age 23) has started writing complex sentences in the past couple of months. We begin with a picture (one of his favourite topics is animals):

Adam then uses Word Mover (iPad app) to write a sentence about what he sees (I love this app because it lets you create sentences like a puzzle). After that, he writes the sentence out and illustrates it with a cartoon drawing:

In this instance, he has spontaneously and purposefully made a lengthy compound sentence (using a clause introduced by a preposition "under ....") to express a complex thought. His picture is a projection of his thoughts about the animals and their feelings - he gives the animals personality and connection (it's not copied, it's "inspired by").

I love to see errors in the sentence construction - they show me that I'm looking at meaningful language learning rather repetition of memorized language "chunks".The spelling error in "hideing" indicates that he's using his own grammatical rules to change verb tenses (add "ing" to the verb for present tense), and the missing word "of" in "family (of) elephants" shows me that he's using a rule he's made about modifying nouns with adjectives (he's used the same structure as "baby elephant").

And that's what gets this speech pathologist excited! Especially when this level of language development was not predictable from his language level in his childhood or early teens. It means that I don't know the ceiling on his learning potential.

.... here's a few more recent sentences and pictures from Adam for your enjoyment:

I'm a big believer in life-long learning. My best advice to parents, educators and therapists would be to let go of any preconceptions about how and when things are usually learned, continually modify your teaching methods to match  the individual's learning profile, and never underestimate the power and plasticity of an intelligent brain ... SB

Note: Recently, someone asked me if there were any neurolinguistic studies connected to the type of therapy I do (using drawing/art to teach communication and language skills). I am not aware of any, but I think it would be an interesting thing to study. If anyone reading this blog knows of related research (or is connected to an academic institution and has an interest in this area), please feel free to contact me via e-mail.