Easing the Struggle for Words
Date: November 1, 2011
A man in his early 20s issues a sentence of nine words. That’s not normally a noteworthy event, but for this young man it’s actually an extraordinary triumph. That’s because he has severe autism that until the age of 14 had left him unable to speak a word. “There’s no case in the literature of someone with autism acquiring speech so late,” says Barry Gordon, the Johns Hopkins neurologist who ran the therapy program that has given this person words and who is now extending his research in ways that could potentially help millions of others.
Gordon and his colleagues have long worked to find ways to unlock communication in low-functioning children and young adults with autism—a group that includes his own son, who Gordon says has been a big source of his inspiration. Standard behavioral therapy techniques, in which patients undergo intensive sessions of repeated prompts to perform certain tasks such as pointing to a picture of a named object, can be effective. But Gordon and his colleagues have been using additional techniques to try to improve on the more standard ones, hoping in part to unlock abilities that these children may have but simply can’t communicate. “It’s surprising how much some of these children know,” he notes. “They’re just trying to find a way to express it.” Gordon’s team has been using such methods as measuring pupil sizes, eye movements and brain electrical activity to help determine what these children know and what they don’t know. They also record therapy sessions and then pore over them for clues to what the subjects are trying to communicate and what methods seem to be helping or hindering them. “Very minor facial expressions can be very telling,” says Gordon.
Gordon is also trying to find ways to help others with impaired speech, including stroke victims. Among the new tools showing promise with research subjects is transcranial direct current stimulation, applying a very mild electric current to carefully chosen points on the scalp, a technique shown to sometimes boost learning in the brain.
But in all cases, says Gordon, the most important thing is to keep working with those who face these challenges. “We think people just give up too often,” he says. “We don’t.”
- Challenge: Enable young people with autism, and others with impairments, to speak
- Approach: Shape sounds that subjects already make; mild electrical brain stimulation
- Progress: Nonverbal children are showing surprising comprehension; one young man with no speech until age 14 is now talking understandably