By Dr Zoë Hopkins
Trite as it sounds, I can remember exactly where I was and what I was doing when I became interested in autism and language. Throughout my undergraduate years (as a student of English Literature, rather than Psychology), I was employed as a support worker on the fabulous Artz and Sportz+ scheme (https://www.dorsetforyou.gov.uk/artz+), for children with additional needs. At a sports workshop, I was supporting a child with autism who had echolalia; he would repeat words and phrases that I said, over and over again, and it was really difficult for us to hold a conversation with each other. The boy’s use of language suggested to me that, in conversation, there is an ‘optimum’ amount of language repetition between speakers: too much copying might be disruptive (as it was in the sports workshop), but not using any of the same words as a partner might convey that s/he wasn’t being listened to. This issue gets even trickier within the context of autism, which is associated with both under- and over-imitation (of language, actions, etc.)
Against this backdrop, language imitation in children with autism became the focus of my Masters thesis at Sussex. As a student on the MSc in Experimental Psychology – an intensive, year-long conversion degree – I was attached to the ChaTLab (http://www.sussex.ac.uk/psychology/chatlab/), where I spent a year studying and hearing presentations about children with autism, and their difficulties with social interaction. When I left Sussex in 2011, it was to move to Singapore, where I spent six months as an intern in the autism team of the Child Guidance Clinic (CGC), as part of the Institute of Mental Health (https://www.imh.com.sg/clinical/page.aspx?id=267). While working at the CGC, I supported two clinicians to run social skills classes for boys with autism; this experience in particular made me think about why conversation doesn’t always run smoothly for people with autism and their social partners.
From Singapore, I returned to Sussex in 2012, to take up an EPSRC-funded PhD scholarship in the ChaTLab, entitled ‘Meeting of Minds in Conversation’. My PhD thesis – co-supervised by Drs Nicola Yuill (Psychology) and Bill Keller (Informatics) – considered the conversational difficulties of children with autism from a language-processing perspective, drawing on theories of linguistic alignment. Alignment is the tendency for speakers to imitate each other’s language in conversation: it is widely observed in the conversations of typical adults, and is associated with more effective and satisfying interactions (c.f., e.g., Fusaroli et al., 2012). Furthermore, alignment may be influenced by ‘audience design’ (=tailoring speech to take a listener into account) and social-affective goals; these are recognised areas of impairment for children with autism. In my thesis, I report three experiments, which consider whether atypical alignment could explain why children with autism might find conversation difficult, and in turn why their social partners might find their interactions odd and unrewarding. My thesis will be available online soon (http://sro.sussex.ac.uk/60608/).
Having survived my PhD viva in February 2016, I have since been working as an Assistant Psychologist at the Disabilities Trust, in a residential service for adults with autism and learning disabilities (http://www.thedtgroup.org/autism-and-learning-disabilities/our-services/hollyrood/news/service-user-helps-to-appoint-new-psychologist/). I continue to be intrigued by conversation in autism, and to think about what can be done to support people with autism with their social interaction. Happily, I was offered a post-doctoral position at Edinburgh University, which will allow me to pursue some of the outstanding questions from my PhD. In April 2017, I joined an ESRC-funded project – ‘Conversational Alignment in Children with an Autism Spectrum Condition and Typical Children – led by Professor Holly Branigan; Nicola Yuill is a co-investigator on this project, which will enable me to maintain my connections with the Sussex ChaT Lab.
I am very excited about the new chapter in my academic career, and welcome enquiries from anyone regarding my research interests. Please consult either my Sussex or Edinburgh University profile pages for contact details.
Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) – doctoral research position
Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) – post-doctoral research position
My research has involved both experimental paradigms and natural language processing methodology.
Hopkins, Z., Yuill, N., & Keller, B. (2016). Children with autism align syntax in natural conversation. Applied Psycholinguistics, 37(2), 347–370. doi:10.1017/S0142716414000599