RESEARCH


Beginning about 2016, the Jaswal Lab (formerly the Child Language & Learning Lab) shifted its primary focus toward projects related to autism. We continue to conduct studies involving social cognition in typically developing children, but these projects now represent a secondary area of interest.


Autism Projects

THE AUTISM & COMMUNICATION PROJECT

At least 30% of people with autism have limited ability to use speech, and many never develop an effective language-based alternative way to communicate. Not surprisingly, the inability to communicate even basic desires, thoughts, emotions, and beliefs in a language-based manner is the most significant stressor faced by nonspeaking people and their families. In addition, because nonspeaking autistics are limited in their ability to express themselves using language, many people assume that they a) are not interested in communicating or interacting socially, and b) are not capable of learning age-appropriate academic material.

Recent findings raise serious doubts about these assumptions. On-going work in the Jaswal lab shows that some parents report that their nonspeaking children are highly motivated to interact with other people. Further, some nonspeaking autistics who have developed alternative ways of communicating describe an intense desire to connect with others. Recent research has suggested that the cognitive potential of many nonspeaking individuals has been vastly underestimated. When individuals’ motivations and potential are underestimated, the effects can be devastating, affecting everything from the social opportunities they are offered to the likelihood that they are given access to a meaningful education.  

The Autism & Communication Project is driven by two specific aims: 1) To discover the social and cognitive processes underlying alternative forms of communication that some non-speaking individuals and their families have developed; and 2) To characterize the range of behavior that some parents of nonspeaking autistic children interpret as communicative and to understand the effect that this has on their relationship with their child. We use a range of methodologies, including behavioral tasks, eye-tracking, in-depth interviews, and focus groups. As detailed on the about us page, the questions we ask, the approach we take, and the interpretations offered are inspired and informed by the people whose lives are most affected by the research. You can learn about some of these folks by by visiting the UVa-Tribe Partnership page.

Recent Related Publications:

Jaswal, V. K., Wayne, A. & Golino, H. (2020). Eye-tracking reveals agency in assisted autistic communication. Scientific Reports, 10, 7882. [doi for full text

Akhtar, N., & Jaswal, V. K. (2020). Stretching the social: Broadening the behavioral indicators of sociality. Child Development Perspectives, 14, 28-33. [doi for full text

Jaswal, V. K., & Akhtar, N. (2019). Supporting autistic flourishing [Response to commentaries]. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 42, e115: 51-59. [doi for full text]

Jaswal, V. K., & Akhtar, N. (2019). Being vs. appearing socially uninterested: Challenging assumptions about social motivation in autism. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 42, e82: 1-14. [doi for full text]

Jaswal, V. K. (2017). Rethinking autism’s past, present, and future: Review of Steve Silberman’s NeurotribesThe American Journal of Psychology, 130, 243-249.[click for full text]

Akhtar, N., Jaswal, V. K., Dinishak, J., & Stephan, C. (2016). On social feedback loops and cascading effects in autism: A commentary on Warlaumont et al. (2014). Psychological Science, 27, 1528-1530. [doi for full text

Jaswal, V. K., Akhtar, N., & Burack, J. A. (2016). Building bridges: Cognitive development in typical and atypical populations. Journal of Cognition and Development, 17, 549-552. [doi for full text]

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PERCEPTIONS AND LABELS

Labels are useful because they can help categorize the world, but how they are used to describe people can be controversial. For example, in the disability community, there is considerable debate over the use of person-first (e.g., “person with autism”) versus identity-first (e.g., “autistic person”) language. In this project, we are interested in understanding (1) what labels people with a connection to autism prefer, and (2) how particular labels may contribute to or reduce the stigmatization of people who have a diagnosis of autism. Many autistic people have indicated this topic is important to them, and we are excited to be collaborating with a number of autistic adults and self-advocacy organizations on this project. For more information, contact jaswallab.uva@gmail.com.


STIGMATIZATION OF AUTISTIC COLLEGE STUDENTS

About 35% of autistic young adults attend college within six years of graduating from high school. Autistic people interact differently than non-autistic people, and the stigma associated with interacting in non-normative ways can result in fewer social relationships and increased mental health challenges. In this project, we are interested in which aspects of non-normative behavior influence stigmatization. For example, many autistic people report a special interest in a particular domain (e.g. music), but they may be stigmatized for how much or how often they talk about their special interest. This project considers how non-autistic college students’ interest in interacting with peers is impacted by the peers’ social behavior and special interests. Our findings may help prepare non-autistic people to think and act inclusively when interacting with people who are different from them. For more information, contact Kayden Stockwell at ks6hv@virginia.edu.


PARENT-CHILD EMOTION SENSITIVITY

The signals we send our social partners play a large role in the “success” of our interactions with them. One particularly important social signal is our displays of emotion. We can tell others how we’re feeling with the words we say, the movement of our bodies, and the appearance of our faces. Children with an autism diagnosis may display emotion differently from their non-autistic peers, but their parents may be able to read those displays quite well. In this project, we are interested in how sensitive parents of autistic children–particularly parents of autistic children who have limited ability to communicate using speech–are to emotional displays. If you are a parent and would like to learn more about the study or how you can participate (the study is conducted online), please email Andrew Lampi at lampi@virginia.edu.


CHILDREN’S PERCEPTIONS OF AUTISTIC BEHAVIOR

From a young age, children learn from adults and peers about their society’s unwritten rules for how to behave. Even by 18 months of age, children can understand these rules and use them to judge whether other people are behaving appropriately. However, children can also take other information (such as someone’s intentions) into account. Because children are sensitive to social rules for behavior, and because autism is characterized by unusual behaviors, we are interested in this project in how non-autistic children evaluate the behavior of autistic children. We are currently recruiting children between 4 and 7 years to meet with us over Zoom to answer questions about a story depicting children behaving in a variety of ways. If you have questions about this study, or you and your child are interested in participating, email Zoe Sargent at zsargent@virginia.edu.


Social Cognition Projects

TRUST IN TESTIMONY

Age-Irregs-BabyMuch of what we know could only have been learned from other people. For example, I know that the earth is round, but all of my own observations suggest that it is flat. I know that there are such things as subatomic particles, but I’ve never seen one. For children to be able to take advantage of their culture’s accumulated knowledge and expertise, they have to be willing to accept some information “on faith,” even if it seems counterintuitive or cannot easily be verified through first-hand experience. At the same time, however, children cannot simply believe everything they are told because people sometimes say things that are wrong. The goal of this work is to understand how very young children balance the benefits of credulity against the need for skepticism.

Recent Related Publications:

Harris, P. L., Koenig, M. A., Corriveau, K. H., & Jaswal, V. K. (2018). Cognitive foundations of learning from testimony. Annual Review of Psychology, 69, 251-278. [doi for full text]

Jaswal, V. K., & Drell, M. B. (2015). The development of social trust. In R. A. Scott & S. M. Kosslyn (Eds.), Emerging trends in the social and behavioral sciences. New York: Wiley. [doi for full text]

Palmquist, C. M., Jaswal, V. K., & Rutherford, A. V. (2016). Success inhibits preschoolers’ ability to establish selective trust. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 152, 192-204. [doi for full text]

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WHAT’S FAIR?

EqualAccess

In general, children think that items such as food or toys should be shared equally. But what if one person chooses to take less than her fair share? Is it okay for someone to have less if she wants less? The goal of this work is to understand whether children incorporate information about desire and access to resources into their fairness evaluations.

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PRIORITIZING GOALS

Trade-Off

Children’s behavior, like adults’, is motivated by multiple goals—for example, learning, affiliating with others, and accumulating resources. In this line of work, we have been investigating how children navigate situations in which two or more goals are in competition. Which goals are prioritized in which situations? How does this change with development? What individual differences are associated?

Recent Related Publications:

Jaswal, V. K., & Kondrad, R. L. (2016). Why children are not always epistemically vigilant: Cognitive limits and social considerations. Child Development Perspectives, 10, 240-244. [doi for full text]

Jaswal, V. K., Pérez-Edgar, K., Kondrad, R. L., Palmquist, C. M., Cole, C. A., & Cole, C. E. (2014). Can’t stop believing: Inhibitory control and resistance to misleading testimony. Developmental Science, 17, 965-976. [doi for full text]

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