Speech bubble formed by a network of communication

Illustration by Laurène Boglio
Illustration by Laurène Boglio

Community Newsletter: Conversation analysis, relationship between autism and intellectual disability

In this week’s Community Newsletter, we look at a new proof for a method to understand how social interactions are organized and a philosophical thread on polygenic risk scores for autism and intellectual disability.

Hello, and welcome to the Community Newsletter! I’m your host, Chelsey B. Coombs, Spectrum’s engagement editor.

Our first Twitter thread this week comes from Kristen Bottema-Beutel, associate professor at Boston College in Massachusetts. Her new study in Autism looked to understand interactions between autistic children and their caregivers by using ‘conversation analysis.’

How caregivers talk to autistic children is important for the children’s development, and many studies of how children learn language use follow-in directives, or speech from a caregiver that relates to what a child is doing in that moment. But interventions that prompt caregivers to engage in follow-in directives don’t have lasting positive effects. Bottema-Beutel and her colleagues say conversation analysis, “a qualitative, micro-analytic research tradition that focuses on how social interactions are organized and made sense of by the people participating in them,” could be more effective.

The researchers applied conversation analysis to videos of caregivers and autistic children playing. When a caregiver issues a directive, such as “Now you try,” she gives the child an opportunity to interact and respond more easily than if she hadn’t, the team found.

“We argue that analyzing proposals in this way offers nuance to prior research on caregiver’s use of follow-in directives, in ways that may be consequential for supporting parents in interacting with their autistic children who are in the early phases of language learning,” the researchers write.

Sue Fletcher-Watson, professor of developmental psychology at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, tweeted praise.

Linda Watson, professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, tweeted that during her doctoral studies, she found similar evidence.

Also this week on Twitter, Jonathan Sebat, professor of psychiatry and cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California, San Diego, threaded an ongoing debate: Is there one autism, with a spectrum of traits, or multiple autisms that can be categorized by different phenotypes? Sebat questioned the existence of autism without intellectual disability, a “holy grail” that some researchers seek, saying that autism with and without intellectual disability exist on the same spectrum.

Sebat hypothesizes that polygenic risk scores for autism, intelligence quotients and educational attainment all relate because of some intersecting subset of alleles for some highly regulated neurodevelopmental process.

Jacob Vorstman, associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Toronto in Canada, replied that autism “is not a necessary phenotype at the severe end of the IQ spectrum” because there are people who have intellectual disability but do not have autism.

Sebat responded that genetics currently suggests that autism without intellectual disability may be at the low-support end of the spectrum rather than a separate entity entirely.

Don’t forget to register for our 28 October webinar, featuring Zachary J. Williams, a medical and doctoral student at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who will speak about measuring alexithymia in autistic people and the importance of developing and validating measures for specific populations.

That’s it for this week’s Community Newsletter! If you have any suggestions for interesting social posts you saw in the autism research sphere, feel free to send an email to me at [email protected]. See you next week!