Surprising Claims For Literacy Skills Among Nonspeaking Autistic People

A new peer-reviewed study explores a controversial theory about the capabilities of nonspeaking autistic people in an innovative way. If the claims made are confirmed it could open the door to greatly expanded opportunities for the people involved. However, the small sample size and history of discredited claims in the area put it in the “huge if true” category, with emphasis on the “if”.

The study implies a great many autistic people who cannot speak have the potential to communicate using text, but most have not been given the chance. If the findings are right, millions of people are missing out on the opportunity to communicate with others and live happier, healthier lives because certain capacities have never been properly investigated.

According to some estimates, around a third of autistic people cannot communicate effectively using speech. The figure depends on the total numbers of autistic people, which remain contentious, but no one doubts the numbers are high. Speech having been humanity’s primary mode of communication for hundreds of thousands of years, it’s common to assume anyone not speaking after a certain age also lacks the capacity to spell, at least if they don’t have a physical disability.

Educators, particularly specialists in autistic children, are aware of exceptions, where those who cannot speak can be literate, but this is generally thought to be rare. A minority view in the field is that these capacities are much more common. Supporters of this position promote “facilitated communication“, also known as “supported typing”, where an assistant claims to help nonspeaking people communicate via touchpads.

However, it can be difficult to determine how much of any message comes from the nonspeaking individual, as opposed to the assistant controlling the individual’s hand and providing the true source of the communication. Facilitated communication is considered by many to be a pseudoscience, making claims for literacy difficult to prove.

University of Virginia researchers claim to have cut the facilitator out of the equation, testing the capacity of nonspeaking autistic people to play a game inspired by Whac-a-Mole and comparing their performance in circumstances where basic literacy skills would assist performance.

Professor Vikram Jaswal and co-authors had either letters or nonsense symbols on a keypad light up, and encouraged participants to tap the illuminated letter as quickly as possible. In some cases the sequence of letters or symbols was random, so the game only measured reaction times. 

In other cases, however, the letters spelled out a sentence that had previously been spoken aloud. Naturally, this aspect of the game is easier for someone who is literate – as soon as they recognize the sequence, they know which letters will light up next and can respond faster.

Response times were almost identical for meaningless symbols and for letters in random order or when spelling phrases backwards. However, more than half the participants were faster to a statistically significant extent when given clues on the letters to expect. Such clues would be useless without at least some capacity to spell, and the results suggest this is surprisingly common among Jaswal’s sample.

With only 31 nonspeaking autistic people in the study, the sample size is too small to offer a reliable indication of this level of literacy in the autistic population. Moreover, although none of participants had received formal education in spelling, they had all participated in programs to teach the use of letterboards, and this had been maintained for an average of 5.58 years. Some people consider these dangerously close to facilitated communication, although they have not been investigated to the same degree.

The participants’ families’ persistence with the letterboard training presumably indicates they saw it as helpful, which further undermines any claims this group is representative of nonspeaking autistic people in general.

“Society has traditionally assumed that people who can’t speak are unable to understand language or to learn to read or write,” Jaswal said in a statement

Jaswal and co-authors acknowledge they are swimming against the tide here, noting a large study of schoolteachers estimated that fewer than 5 percent of their nonspeaking students above third grade could write simple phrases or sentences.

“Our findings suggest that many nonspeaking autistic people have foundational literacy skills,” Jaswal continued. “With appropriate instruction and support, it might be possible to harness these skills to provide access to written forms of communication as an alternative to speech.”

The benefits for the individuals, their families and society as a whole could be immense. “Learning to express themselves through writing would open up educational, employment and social opportunities that nonspeaking autistic people have historically not been given access to,” Jaswal said.

Much larger studies will be needed, however, to make the case,

The study is published open access in the journal Autism.

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