UConn Project Probes Autism Language Abilities

In an ambitious initiative to delve into the complexities of language processing within individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a dedicated team of researchers led by UConn psychology professor Inge-Marie Eigsti is pioneering a project that could potentially reshape our understanding of language abilities in autism. Funded by an R01 grant from the National Institutes of Health, the “Ready to CONNECT: Conversation and Language in Autistic Teens” project aims to address a scientific puzzle that has baffled autism researchers for years.

Despite children and individuals with ASD often demonstrating age-appropriate skills on standardized clinical assessments of language, discrepancies in language comprehension and conversational ability have been observed. These discrepancies suggest non-age-appropriate abilities that can adversely affect social, educational, and occupational outcomes. “We developed this grant to look at the possibility that standardized language assessments are kind of missing something,” explains Eigsti. “They’re not capturing something about language abilities in autism. And so we’ve come up with this metric of conversational success.”

The genesis of the Connect Project can be traced back to a long-standing friendship among its investigators who found common ground in their clinical and psycholinguistic expertise. In 2003, at a meetup during the International Autism Conference in Chicago, discussions between Eigsti and her collaborators spanned hours, leading to a tradition of yearly group dinners at the conference. Over time, these gatherings became the building blocks of the Connect Project. The core team includes Eigsti, alongside Ruth Grossman, Julia Parish-Morris, Ethan Weed, and Riccardo Fusaroli.

Their approach centers around conducting conversations between teenagers with and without autism, aiming to measure conversational success through a novel metric that combines qualitative and quantitative measures. This method is designed to more accurately reflect individuals’ real-life abilities in engaging in conversations, going beyond what traditional standardized clinical assessments can capture.

Eigsti points out that standardized clinical assessments may build uniquely on the strengths of autistic individuals, not fully reflecting the challenges they face in everyday language processing. “The examiner asks a question and you respond to that question…And then the next item is completely novel, so it doesn’t build on that prior activity,” she explains. In contrast, the Connect Project focuses on the dynamic nature of real-life conversations, including how information is tracked and remembered over time—elements crucial for understanding the real-world challenges faced by individuals with autism.

By analyzing these conversations, the team intends to create a computational model to identify subgroups of ASD individuals based on their conversation interactions. This nuanced appreciation of strengths and challenges will guide more personalized treatment approaches. Furthermore, the project explores whether autistic individuals communicate more efficiently with those sharing their neurotype and examines the differences between online and in-person interactions specific to autism.

This innovative research embodies a significant leap forward in understanding autism, with the potential to inform more effective interventions and support mechanisms for individuals across the autism spectrum. As this project progresses, it holds the promise of unveiling new layers of understanding and acceptance, fostering a more inclusive society for all.

This article provides insights into the ongoing research project and its significance. The views, positions, and conclusions expressed are solely those of the researchers involved.

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