This morning NPR s covering a controversial new treatment for autism. It’s controversial because it involves treating children with a narcotic, and you can read about that controversy here:
Let’s be clear: I’m a linguist, not a medical doctor or a speech pathologist, so I have no qualifications to comment on the medical safety of this research, and anything that involves children deserves extra scrutiny. What’s interesting to me, though, is how this research overlaps with findings of linguistic research, and that overlap–the strong relationship between language and emotion–isn’t discussed in this article.
The relationship between language and emotion is well documented in linguistic research in a variety of subfields. Second language acquisition researchers know that people are much more likely to learn a language if they have a friend (or, better yet, a love interest) who speaks that language. Sociolinguists know that language change can happen at very low levels (even phonetic changes that occur below the level of consciousness) when different groups are in contact with one another, and that this is more likely to happen when people like each other. Creolists know that political power plays important and predictable roles in the development of blended language varieties. Social-psychologists have a well-developed Accommodation Theory to explain these contact situations. It stands to reason, then, that the inability to form social bonds would interfere with language skills.
We know that narcotics can be very dangerous, but it seems reasonable that autism–which affects both language and other social interaction skills–might be effectively treated by drugs that are designed to increase trust and the desire for social interaction. After all, not learning a language can inhibit educational attainment, but many people with autism are highly intelligent; they just lack the everyday skills for interaction that most of us take for granted. Perhaps this treatment (or something like it) might lead to a greater understanding of the causes of autism. Let’s hope the benefits outweigh the risks.