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Aaron Shield, Ph.D.

Principal Investigator – Deaf Autism Project
Ph.D. 2010 Linguistics, The University of Texas at Austin

As a linguist trained in the linguistics of signed languages, I am interested in what we can learn about autism’s effects on cognition from studying a very special population of children — deaf children with autism who are exposed to a sign language from birth. Signed languages are true, naturally-occurring human languages with complex grammatical structures that are similar in many ways to spoken languages. However, some aspects of sign language structure may interact with autism in unique and interesting ways. For example, signed languages employ facial expressions to signal negation, questions, or verbal aspect, but people with autism have difficulty interpreting facial expressions. Thus, in this case we can see how a social deficit characteristic of autism could have linguistic consequences in sign, but not in speech. Studying deaf children with autism thus provides a unique opportunity to learn how the social and linguistic deficits in autism are related, as well as to shed light on the nature of cognitive skills employed in language acquisition. With my work at BU, I hope to address these questions as well as to help inform the development of strategies for better diagnosis and intervention with deaf children with autism, a population that up until now has received very little scientific attention.

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Aaron Shield, Ph.D.