The Office for Students with Disabilities (OSD) will host the first McGill Disabilities Awareness Week running March 12 – 17. Disabilities Awareness Week will feature several large events hosted by the OSD itself, as well as a myriad of other activities showcasing awareness and inclusion in many faculties, departments and units on campus.
On Tuesday, March 13, Professor Aparna Nadig will participate in a panel on Asperger’s syndrome, an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) that is characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior. The panel, which will include researchers, practitioners and advisors, is aimed at helping staff and faculty better understand Asperger’s syndrome, as people with the diagnosis will be increasing in numbers rapidly in the next few years. Nadig is Director of the Pop Lab which conducts research in a variety of ASD-related areas. (http://poplab.mcgill.ca/)
Can you tell us about your background and how you came to be interested in people who have ASD?
I became interested in people with ASD while studying language development and language processing in neurotypical people. Much of the research I was reading and conducting highlighted how ambiguous literal language often is and how this needs to be supplemented with inferences based on the relevant context, who is speaking, etc. to really understand what someone means to say. It also emphasized the amazing speed with which this normally happens for communication to proceed in an efficient way. All of this led me to consider what happens if you don’t naturally have access to these inferences or ease in incorporating them, which is often the case for people with an ASD.
What are your specific research interests regarding ASD?
My research interests continued along this line of language and communication in people with ASD – how they may differ from the neurotypical mode when producing or understanding language, especially in face-to-face communication, and investigating where the large differences observed across the autism spectrum may stem from. I have also studied how young children with ASD develop in terms of pre-verbal social communication typically seen in infancy, and how this can be used to identify ASD at a young age, as well as differences in early word learning processes and trajectories in children with ASD and how this can be used to inform language therapies.
Most recently I have been working on a project with Tara Flanagan to try to bridge the gap in services for young adults with ASD (given that most resources are targeted for early intervention) by developing a transition support program that we are getting off the ground in the next months and will be offering over the coming years.
What do you think are the most important things to remember when interacting with someone who is on the Autism Spectrum?
To not assume that all aspects of communication are understood in the same way as they may be by those without an ASD, and to learn to modify your interaction to be more explicit in terms of what you want to convey. Also to check any stereotypes you may have about people with ASD at the door and to get the know the individual you are interacting with; while it is helpful to know about some general areas that pose challenges to people with ASD, there are also massive differences between individuals on the spectrum and the specific strengths and difficulties they have.
Why do you think awareness about ASD is important?
It is important to know about ASD just as any other aspect of diversity is important for people to know about: to better understand these individuals, feel comfortable interacting with them, and to have a more inclusive society. People with ASD have always been around. Since the presence of ASD in the public eye has increased exponentially in recent years, it is more important now than ever that this population is accurately understood and supported.
Panel on Asperger’s Syndrome; Tuesday, March 13; 12-2 p.m.; Brown Student Services Building, Room 3001. For the full list of Disabilities Awareness Week activities, go to http://mcgillosd.blogspot.com/