Cognition without language: Nonverbal communication and cognition in non- or minimally verbal children with autism

On May 4, 2017 by Wolfram Hinzen

A terribly naive idea would be that if we subtract language from human cognition, pantomime would remain: the same communicative ideas, just a more complex and embodied way of getting them across. What is naive about this is that language structures our communicative ideas themselves. In this project, which we launched in 2017, we study a population that is still unknown to many linguists and other researchers: children on the autism spectrum in whom language does not develop in either production or comprehension. These children, at the lowest-functioning and most neglected end of the spectrum, do not decide not to talk, but don’t have language. They can teach us a lot, coming as close as anyone can to what human mental life and behaviour can be like when language is absent. Deaf children with insufficient exposure to a sign language, for example, do not approximate this case. Together with Berta Salvado and Andrea Rodriguez from the local centre of attention COADI (, we comprehensively profile the nonverbal communication and cognition of these children against comparator groups, to see which variation in these domains the absence of language (in production) allows. In a second phase, ethical permission has been obtained to invite these children and their parents to undergo a structural and functional neuroimaging protocol, to detect neurobiological correlates of the nonverbal mind (a cooperation with FIDMAG and the pediatric neuroimaging unit in the San Joan de Deu hospital: Josep Munuera, Teresa Maristany, and Jordi Muchart). Two Masters theses, pursued by Dominika Slusna and Ciara Sinnott-Grace from the UPF, are associated to this project, looking specifically at gestural repertoires in nonverbal children.




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