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Eye on Psi Chi: Spring/Summer 2014

On Autism and Language Comprehension With
Morton Ann Gernsbacher, PhD

By Bradley Cannon, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga

The following quotes by Dr. Morton Ann Gernsbacher are partially adapted from a recent online discussion at Psi Chi’s LinkedIn Group.

How can we most effectively comprehend, communicate, and ultimately accommodate the needs of others? Dr. Morton Ann Gernsbacher (University of Wisconsin–Madison) has conducted research revolving around these questions for the past 35 years. She has extensively researched language comprehension on everything from conceptual anaphors to the role of suppression in sentence comprehension. She then shifted her interests to autism research, largely to identify and disprove common myths created by nonautistic people, who would rather cure autism than learn how to accept and appreciate autistic people for who they are.

Which term is correct? Persons with autism or autistic people?
Throughout this discussion, I will be using the term autistic adult(s), autistic child(ren), and autistic person(s) rather than adult with autism, child(ren) with autism, or person(s) with autism. My word choice is purposeful and derives from my deep respect for the autistic community who tend to prefer Identity-First Language (e.g., autistic people) over Person-First Language (e.g., people with autism).

In fact, 99% of the first 100 Google hits with the term autistics or autistic people lead to organizations, blogs, and websites run by autistic people. In contrast, all of the first 100 Google hits with the terms children with autism or people with autism lead to sites run by nonautistic professionals, parents, researchers, or the like. If you’re interested in this topic, please read the classic manifesto, "Why I dislike ‘Person-First’ Language,” by Sinclair (1999).

Are autistic persons the only group who encourage Identity-First Language?
It’s not just autistic persons; members of other disability groups frequently prefer Identity-First Language too. For instance, the National Federation of the Blind (NFB) adamantly rejects Person-First Language (Jernigan, 2009; Vaughan, 1997). According to the NFB, blind people do not want to be called people with blindness. They want to be called blind people.

Similarly, I think most of us rolled our eyes when we read a few years ago that world-class sprinter, Tyson Homosexual, had qualified for the Beijing Olympics. The sprinter’s name is Tyson Gay, but at least one newspaper refused to use the term gay, instead insisting upon using the term homosexual despite gays preferring to be called gays (Akers, 2008).

This newspaper might have been well-intentioned, but the question remains: Who gets to decide what people are called? Is it the people themselves, in this case gay people or in the case we’re discussing disabled people or autistic people? Or is it nongay, nondisabled, and nonautistic people who get to decide what gay, disabled, or autistic people are called?

In one of a series of articles about Person-First Language, Roger Collier writes that "tucking the names of diseases and disabilities in the shadows may have the opposite effect of what is intended. It could stigmatize words that were never considered derogatory or pejorative in the first place” (Collier, 2012, p. 1977).

Collier’s point is easily illustrated in the pages of our scholarly journals and textbooks. Although they all insist that autistic children be referred to as children with autism, they never insist that typically developing children be referred to as children with typical development. As Sinclair (1999) wrote in his manifesto: "It is only when someone has decided that the characteristic being referred to is negative that suddenly people want to separate it from the person” (para. 4).

Which would you say is the most popular autism stereotype and why?
I think the most prevalent—and deleterious—myth in both the public and research arena is that autistic people lack empathy. That pronouncement is one that autistic people fight against every day because it has real-world repercussions. When we assume that another person lacks empathy, we open the door to all sorts of dangerous assertions; we trick ourselves into thinking that this person doesn’t care; we envision that this person will only respond to us with callous disregard; we erroneously claim that this person is likely to commit mass murder.

However, the tide is turning a bit. For example, last fall Mediaite [a news and opinion blog] called out a popular TV talk show for making the unfounded assumption that autistic persons lack empathy (Christopher, 2012). Unfortunately, we still have a long way to go before the general public—and researchers—don’t make this unfounded assumption.

Why don’t more studies involve autistic adults as opposed to children?
You are absolutely right that there are far too few studies about autistic adults rather than children. A couple years ago we even evaluated the hypothesis that when the general public thinks about autism, they think about children rather than adults (Stevenson, 2011).

We found that state and local autism societies were more likely to showcase photos of children on their websites’ homepages, and autism charities were more likely to describe autism in terms of children. Therefore, it’s not too surprising that the vast majority of autistic characters in fictional books, movies, and TV programs are children rather than adults. The news industry even has a strong bias toward featuring autistic children rather than autistic adults.

All of these biases coalesce to make autistic adults invisible or to juvenilize those adults we do hear about. We could learn so much by studying autistic adults who have succeeded in living satisfying lives—and they have done so not by becoming no longer autistic but instead by living successful lives as autistic persons.

Why aren’t more autism researchers autistic people themselves?
I can’t imagine the utter frustration and indignity that autistic persons face daily when the plethora of myths about them are not only touted in research articles, textbooks, and the popular press but also thrown back into their faces as a way to discount their contributions and perspectives. It’s that frustration that keeps me motivated to do research (and other writing) to dispel these myths.

I am a firm believer that research should not be done on autistic persons but with autistic persons. These days, we would never think it is okay for a group of Whites to do research on Blacks, or a group of non-Latinos to do research on Latinos without being guided by Latinos, etc. But for some reason nonautistic researchers think it’s okay to do research on autism without being guided by autistic persons. I disagree, and I’m always looking for new autistic collaborators—and autistic-driven ideas.

For you, what is the correlation between autism, language communication, and now your most recent endeavor into online communication research?
The communality are the cognitive components of communication. In my language comprehension research, I have sought to understand the general cognitive processes and mechanisms that underlie psycholinguistic phenomena such as how we understand pronouns, ambiguous words, who’s doing what to whom, and narrative passages and stories. In my autism research, I have worked with my autistic colleagues to understand the cognitive profile that underlies atypical (and typical) communication, as well as typical and atypical focus of attention. And in my online communication work, I have sought to understand what cognitive features underlie our current preference for asynchronous text-based communication (e.g., e-mail over voice mail; text over phone call; Internet discussion board over in-person forum). How did you become interested in language comprehension research?

Anyone in my presence for more than two minutes would not be surprised that I study language, given how frequently and copiously I produce it. However, prior to starting my doctoral training, I planned to study visual memory. Unfortunately, just a few weeks before I arrived as a first-year student, the professor with whom I had planned to work left. To my great fortune, another professor, Donald J. Foss, was willing to take me under his wing. Professor Foss was one of the world’s leading experts on language comprehension, having authored the definitive textbook and conducted seminal research in the field.

What strategies and courses should students take to improve their chances of becoming involved in communication research?
I firmly believe that a strong background in experimental methodology (research design, statistics, and the like) is key to doing good psychological research including research on human communication. Understanding the necessity of control conditions, random assignment, hypothesis testing—to say the least of appreciating the grandeur of counterbalancing—are the keys to the research kingdom.

What can we expect to see from you in the future?
I think the next 5 to 10 years will bring fascinating changes both to higher education and to scholarly publication. I’m not at all certain where we are going, but I greatly look forward to being along for the ride.

Akers, M. A. (2008, July 1). Christian site’s ban on ‘G’ word sends homosexual to Olympics. The Washington Post. Retrieved from

Christopher, T. (2012). Piers Morgan quack says people with autism lack empathy: ‘Something’s missing in the brain.’ Retrieved April 3, 2014, from

Collier R. (2012). Person-First Language: Noble intent but to what effect?. Canadian Medical Association Journal, 184, 1977–1978. doi:10.1503/cmaj.109-4319

Jernigan, K. (2009, March). The pitfalls of political correctness: Euphemisms excoriated. Braille Monitor, 52(3). Retrieved from

Sinclair, J. (1999). Why I dislike ‘Person-First’ Language. Retrieved from

Stevenson, J. L., Harp, B., Gernsbacher, M. A. (2011). Infantilizing autism. Disability Studies Quarterly, 31. Retrieved from

Vaughan, C. E. (1997). People-First Language: An unholy crusade. National Federation of the Blind. Retrieved April 3, 2014, from

Suggested Additional Reading Material
for Identity-First Language

L Brown (2011, August 4). The significance of semantics: Person-First Language: Why it matters [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Musings of an Aspie (2013, November 1). Autistic as a reclaimed word [Web log post]. Retrieved from

The Shake (2013, May 1). Autism: Why Identity-First Language is important [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Zoe (2012, August 5). Disability first: autism is not an accessory [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Morton Ann Gernsbacher, PhD, is a Vilas Research Professor and the Sir Frederic C. Bartlett Professor of Psychology. She is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Society for Experimental Psychologists, the American Psychological Association (Divisions 1, 3, and 6), the American Psychological Society, and the American Educational Research Association. Dr. Gernsbacher has received numerous awards including the Research Career Development Award and a Senior Research Fellowship from the National Institutes of Health. She has served as president of the Association for Psychological Science, the Society for Text and Discourse, the Division of Experimental Psychology of APA, and the Foundation for the Advancement for Behavioral and Brain Sciences. She currently serves on the Advisory Committee of the Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences Directorate of the National Science Foundation.

Copyright 2014 (Volume 18, Issue 3) by Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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