My First Experience of Researching ASD

A new semester begins! One exciting thing is that I join the lab of Professor Zhao in my department, whose academic interest includes SLA, bilingual literacy development, and EFL teacher professional development. Recently, the lab has been focusing on literacy development of children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in the Greater Bay Area. Therefore, yesterday some team members and I went to Guangzhou Xinyou Social Service Association to collect data.

It was my first time that I had got in touch with children with ASD. I once learned about ASD in class yet still did not have a clear idea of how these children actually behave in everyday life. We planned to conduct eight tests to examine their non-verbal IQ, receptive vocabulary, phonological awareness, listening comprehension, and Chinese character recognition and so on.

The first kid I tested was a four-year-old boy called Yuanyuan. He surprised me because he performed strikingly well in all tests and even complained to me that they were so easy and thus tedious. Based on my observation, he acted relatively normally when communicating and did not demonstrate any repetitive behaviors. Afterwards, we talked to his father who considers Yuanyuan as incapable of empathizing with others. Certainly, not to our surprise, he said Yuanyuan started to receive regular and intense intervention since one and a half years old, which partially made his unexpected test results understandable.

Shengsheng, the second participant, however, stood in stark contrast with Yuanyuan. He did not respond to any of our questions, which we attributed to communicative difficulties in the beginning whereas soon we found out that being five years old, he has no language at all. He can only make several simplest sounds, “a”, “i”. He cannot understand some most basic instruction, such as “sit down”, “bye bye”, and “shake hands.” He ran and jumped all the time without paying attention to any toy or snacks in the room. We then asked his mother for more about his situation. She told us Shengsheng was taken to hospital and was diagnosed with ASD at three, which seemed rather late compared with Yuanyuan. More surprisingly, she said Shengsheng underwent language regression, which I had not heard about before. Back home I searched online and got to know there is an academic debate that regression is on a spectrum like autism itself or it is only confined to a subtype of children with autism. I need to further probe into it for a deeper understanding.

The third kid, the five-year-old Xianxian, was between Yuanyuan and Shengsheng. He could follow instruction to complete some tests yet he did not communicate with us. He kept laughing and screamed suddenly sometimes. His echolalia behavior was particularly obvious. Another thing is, although he is not able to have natural conversation, perhaps he has actually worked out a way to “convey” his need and feelings to close family members. At a point during the test, he shouted out sounds like “a, si” that we did not understand. Whereas his mother, waiting outside the door, rushed in immediately and explained that this meant he wanted to go to toilet. To be frank, that moment touched me for reasons I could not specify yet a prevailing saying occurred to me, “They with ASD seem incompatible with our world, but they have their own little world.”

We spent four hours on having all work done, and it turned out to be far more arduous than we had imagined. It was difficult for most children to concentrate and they could be easily distracted by things such as the bottle or the pencil on the desk. Some of them are also diagnosed with attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Consequently, it is really likely that test results are in fact worse than their actual abilities. To be specific, in the listening comprehension test, Xianxian lost patience very soon and seemed to start pointing one of four options in an item completely randomly. He even chose an option before we finished reading out the question. We did great lengths to help him calm down and concentrate whereas it did not work in most cases. In addition, the test examining phonological awareness is definitely in need of adjustment because the majority of children failed to understand the instruction and gave no response.

I think of an old Chinese saying to summarize what I learned from yesterday’s experience. “We have to read ten thousand books and travel ten thousand miles as well.” It reveals the relationship between theory and practice. Taking notes in class and reading reference books once made me under the illusion that I was adequately familiar with some topics. Whereas after a reality check my insight into them is neither comprehensive nor profound, just as another Chinese idiom tells, “observing a leopard through a tube.” At the same time, my knowledge of them is merely stored in my mind, dormant like a bear hibernating. It is by participating in research or other practices that allows me to activate the “bear” and realize that the tube is more a hindrance than a help to capturing the whole picture of the leopard. In this way, a sense of anticipation comes to me that with Professor Zhao and other team members, I am on the way of learning further, doing better, and contributing more.


Language regression in autism tied to motor milestones