Autism and the Nature of Language Explored at International Conference

Posted on: 30 March 2015

How Autism can shed light on the fundamental nature of language and thought was discussed by leading psychologists, linguists and philosophers at an international conference in Trinity College Dublin last week. The three-day international conference  was  hosted by Trinity Long Room Hub Arts & Humanities Research Institute.

Entitled Autism and the Foundations of Language and Communication, the interdisciplinary conference was organised by Trinity’s School of PsychologySchool of Linguistic, Speech and Communication Sciences, School of Social Sciences and Philosophy in collaboration with the National College of Ireland. The conference brought  together national and international researchers to share their work on language and Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) with the intention of informing research in each discipline and forming new collaborations.

One of the organisers of the conference Dr Meredith Plug, Adjunct Assistant Professor at the Department of Philosophy, said: “Research on neurodevelopmental disorders can inform general research into the nature of language and thought. Autism Spectrum Disorder is of particular interest both to linguists and philosophers of language and mind because there seems to be a specific  combination of high level language ability, on the one hand, and impairments in the ability to make sense of other people’s mental lives, on the other, in some individuals on the autism spectrum. This combination of abilities and impairments challenges many famous theoretical accounts of the nature of language and communication proposed by philosophers and linguists.  Autism research, therefore, has the potential to answer certain very fundamental theoretical questions.”

Dr Sinead McNally, co-organiser of the conference and Lecturer in Psychology at the National College of Ireland, said: “The interdisciplinary nature of the conference, bringing together philosophers, psychologists and linguists who work in this field, was particularly exciting, as the conference offered a novel opportunity to share our findings on these issues and potentially develop new collaborations which cuts across disciplines”.

As part of the conference Dr Melissa Allen, Senior Lecturer in Psychology, Lancaster University, will give a public lecture focusing on autism and symbolic representation. Dr Allen presented her research on how children with ASD appear to learn about pictures via an associative process and focus on what a picture looks like, rather than what it is intended to be. In her talk, she argued that children with ASD are ‘realists’ when interpreting visual depictions, formulating a common-sense theory of what pictures look like rather than relying on intentional information. This knowledge is especially important considering that many children with ASD use picture-based systems for communication.

In his talk entitled Pragmatics in autism: some puzzling cases, Mikhail Kissine, Professor of Linguistics at the Université libre de Bruxelles, discussed recent research which suggests that comprehension of metaphors may be intact in people with ASD. Professor Kissine reported on the results of two independent studies which found that children with autism use context to interpret indirect requests. He discussed how these results challenge the traditional belief that people with autism excessively rely on literal meaning, without taking the context of communication into account.

Dr Jean Quigley, Assistant Professor in Psychology, Trinity College Dublin, reported on a study of early mother-infant interactions and their relevance for later language development in the case of preverbal infants who are at genetic risk of autism. Using video microanalysis techniques Dr Quigley and her team have identified patterns of behaviour in both mother and infant’s styles of interacting and responding to each other and have also observed how mothers adapt their speech styles and ways of interacting with their baby to respond to their infants’ unique interests and to engage them in successful interactions.

A full conference programme, abstracts and biographies are available at:






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