Unanticipated speech and autism

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Teaching and Leadership


Douglas Biklen


Unanticipated speech, Autism, Speech

Subject Categories

Disability and Equity in Education | Interpersonal and Small Group Communication | Special Education and Teaching


This study examines the speech and other communication of seven participants with labels of autism, whose speech and efforts at speaking have been on the increase. A social constructivist understanding of both autism and communication informs the study, and "communication ability" is located between individuals instead of considered residing within individuals. There is also a focus on the interests and points of view of the seven core participants, even when those perspectives are difficult to decipher. The core participants were found to be using a range of communicative strategies to interact with those around them, including non-speech communication, unconventional speech, and somewhat conventional speech. The process involved in speaking more, which usually included much hard work and some inevitable disappointment, was examined.

Because people labeled with developmental disabilities such as autism often have an unusual approach to the enterprise of communication, communicative ambiguity characterizes many of the interactions they have with other people. This study suggests that this ambiguity is due more to widespread discomfort and intolerance for their differences than to features inherent to their disabilities, and need not be inevitable. Autistic participants in this study were frequently observed to be engaged with others, and a positive framework for understanding autism was often evident in which participants' abilities were valued and typically described as talents, not devalued as "savant skills." People with autism labels can be (and deserve to be) recognized for the complex and difficult work that they do in trying to communicate with others.


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