Chen, R. S. Y. (2022). Improvisations in the embodied interactions of a non-speaking autistic child and his mother: practices for creating intersubjective understanding

Cognitive Linguistics, 33(1), 155-191.

The human capacity for intersubjective engagement is present, even when one is limited in speaking, pointing, and coordinating gaze. This paper examines the everyday social interactions of two differently-disposed actors—a non-speaking autistic child and his speaking, neurotypical mother—who participate in shared attention through dialogic turn-taking. In the collaborative pursuit of activities, the participants coordinate across multiple turns, producing multi-turn constructions that accomplish specific goals. The paper asks two questions about these collaborative constructions: 1) What are their linguistic and discursive structures? 2) How do embodied actions contribute to these constructions? Findings show that the parent and child repeatedly co-produced multi-turn constructions that had consistent structures, implying a sophisticated ability to anticipate the completion of action trajectories. Examining the embodied actions of interactants revealed that the child often accommodated to the parent’s demands for participation. Nonetheless, the child occasionally pursued his own goals by improvising with and within multi-turn constructions. He launched constructions to redirect parental attention, and otherwise produced surprising actions within the turn-taking structure of these constructions. The paper concludes that multi-turn constructions in the midst of activities are a primordial site in which to begin observing the competencies of non-speaking autistic children for intersubjective engagement.