The Scientific Meeting for Autism Spectrum Conditions (WTAS) is organized by the Society for Research in Autism Spectrum Conditions (WGAS) and is the largest research meeting on ASD in the German-speaking world. This 10th edition was held in Berlin, Germany from 30 to 31 March on the special theme “Language and Communication“. For two days, researchers, clinicians, students presented their scientific discoveries in 21 oral sessions, 46 posters, and 8 workshops on a broad spectrum of topics: linguistics, imaging, diagnostics, neuropsychology, and intervention. This year’s keynote speakers were Professor Peter Szatmari from the University of Toronto, Canada, who was awarded the 4th Kanner-Asperger-Medal; Professor Connie Kasari (University of California, USA), who talked about “Social communication interventions for preverbal and minimally verbal children with ASD”; and Professor Friedemann Pulvermüller (Freie Universität Berlin, Germany) who talked about “The autism spectrum as a key to the brain mechanisms of language, action and perception”.
I attended the workshop on “Communication and language in high-functioning autism” by Andreas Riedel from the Freiburg University. To begin with, Asperger’s syndrome (understood as high-functioning autism, HFA) is often included in ASD, but unlike (infantile) autism, in Asperger’s syndrome there is no developmental, cognitive, or linguistic delay (according to the ICD-10). However, at the linguistic level it appears that HFA can effectively use language to communicate and exchange objective information, but have difficulties with pragmatic aspects, like using and understanding metaphers, irony, formalities or euphemisms, speech acts (e.g. “It’s quite cold” said as an incentive for someone to close the window), prosody, and turn-taking. Moreover, the seeemingly simple act of small-talk can pose a real challenge for HFA. Here Mr. Riedel showed us an original algorithm for small talk created by one of his patients, represented as a kinda psychedelic drawing of connected keywords and questions (e.g. weather: too cold, summerish; next holiday: beach, relax). To apply these theoretical notions, we were asked first to make small talk for 5 minutes with the person sitting next to us, and later to talk about an emotional situation in small groups, while paying attention both to the transmitted infomation and the body language. It was quite difficult, because generally in conversations (especially emotional ones) we don’t consciously control our gestures and facial expressions, they go along. For HFA, it is difficult to integrate these two aspects in communication, but this can be trained, precisely with these short exercises or with “social stories” (as was presented in the poster of Andreas Eckert et al.) or with role play (presented in the poster of Franziska Krause and Katharina Rohlfing). Another interesting poster related to some aspects discussed in this workshop was by Stefanie Schelinski and Katharina von Kriegstein, who found that in HFA, impairments in the perception of vocal pitch might contribute to difficulties in recognizing vocal emotion.
At the end of the day, I was excited and (more) motivated by having learned about so many interesting studies, and having met so many people dedicated to advance research in ASD!