Vikram Jasawal is a professor at the University of Virginia. He is currently conducting research that focuses on social interactions and communication styles in autistic individuals. His previous work has ranged from word learning, categorization, social cognition, and memory development. At the UVA Jaswal Lab, the main priority for their research is collaborating with those who have been most affected.
Vikram Jaswal started as a developmental psychologist. However, he got the opportunity to spend time with a group of nonspeaking autistic young adults where he addressed the ableist assumptions he had his entire life. Vikram had previously followed along with the textbook narrative of autism that research often focuses on. Once he saw this group’s humor, thoughtfulness, intelligence, and friendships, he was inspired to learn more about autism from their perspective
Jenn: Hi Vikram! So, what inspired you to study topics such as development, word learning, categorization, memory development, or social cognition?
Vikram: That’s a good question. As an undergraduate, I didn’t know what I wanted to study. My first work-study job was in an architecture library. I did not like it. I didn’t like the job because one of the tasks was sitting at a desk. This was back when you had to check people’s IDs by hand, and people just weren’t very friendly about showing their IDs. Anyway, it just wasn’t a good fit for me. I had just been assigned to that job, but I was looking for another job. Long story short, I found another job in a psychology professor’s office. I didn’t know or think I would be interested in psychology. I was, you know, 18 at the time in my first year of college. I’m from Lincoln, Nebraska, but I went to college at Columbia University in New York City. The initial part of the job was working as an office assistant. I was helping with manuscripts and other office things. Eventually, I learned a bit about the research that the psychology professor and his group were doing. I then met the graduate students, postdocs, and other undergraduates working in his lab.
The lab was focused on animal cognition. The questions at their roots were about the relationships between thought and language in animals. They were also interested in investigating the cognitive processes in animals who don’t have language and don’t speak.
So, that’s what led me to this interest in thought and language. And then, when I was thinking about graduate school, I decided what I wanted to focus on was developing language and developing thought. I was interested in how the two influence each other. So, that led to communication and categorization and then eventually together.
Jenn: That’s so cool that your initial internship led you to where you are now! So, what made you get involved specifically with I-ASC?
Vikram: It was about 2015. I got to know Elizabeth Vosseller, who invited me to talk about research and autism to a group of spellers participating in a summer institute at Growing Kids Therapy Center. I had never spent much time with nonspeaking autistic people who communicate in these ways, so I said sure! So, every day I’d come for a couple of hours, and we would engage in these really interesting discussions. I left each meeting astonished, excited and looking forward to the next day.
One of the things that became crystal clear in those interactions was the good fortune I was having, that I was lucky enough to be able to participate in these discussions with these individuals whose profiles didn’t match the mainstream autism science suggested it should be like. These folks I was getting to spend time with were witty, and they had this, you know, banter with each other, and they asked excellent questions and so on.
So, one of the things that became clear in the course of those meetings was that they are very aware of how marginalized they are. They communicate in lots of ways, but the spelling method of communication that they use proves just how many of them are marginalized.
People don’t exactly understand why they communicate through spelling or what it means. And so that’s kind of how we got started on some of these projects. There are just all kinds of really fascinating questions that spellers and others are really hoping to be able to investigate. Not just what autistic people, but what nonspeaking autistic people’s lives are like too.
Jenn: Awesome! So what has been your favorite study that you’ve conducted? Or your most fascinating?
Vikram: Well, probably the eye-tracking, which I will probably talk about at the conference to try to characterize what was happening as spellers used S2C quantitatively. Using that data, we make some inferences about the likelihood that they show communicative agency. So, I think that study took a lot of work, but I enjoyed the process. I certainly enjoyed talking to other people about it and getting reactions from nonspeaking folks about it too.
Jenn: Could you explain a little bit about that eye-tracking?
Vikram: The eye-tracking study that we did ultimately reported on data from nine individuals who were nonspeaking young adults. It involves a pair of equipment glasses. These pair of glasses can track where somebody’s looking over time. Our interest in doing the study was to investigate how quickly spellers looked at and pointed to letters as they spelled as close in approximation to what happens in their daily lives as possible.
We were trying to characterize what happened as they spelled. This group of folks, all of whom had experience with a letter board for at least two years, were young adults and were considered fluent by the practitioners.
They pointed to about one letter each second, and most of the time, they looked at the following letter about half a second before they pointed to it. They also rarely made spelling mistakes. This combination of results and some other psycho-linguistic patterns we documented allowed us to make the case that the communication regulation partner is not cueing or influencing them to look at and point to specific letters.
Jenn: That’s really interesting! My last question is if you could tell the world anything about the nonspeaking community, what would you tell them?
Vikram: I would say that it’s something that we all should know by the time we’re in kindergarten. You can’t judge what somebody is like, what they know, or how they will interact with you based on their appearance. Once people actually get to know them and spend time with them, it’s just an amazing experience. It enriches one’s life immeasurably in the undergraduate seminar I teach at the University of Virginia. The past couple of semesters, we’ve had a chance to get to know a group of nonspeaking autistic folks virtually. A few years before, with Elizabeth, we had an initiative where the undergraduates and nonspeaking young adults got together both in person and virtually.
When I read the undergraduate’s reactions to them, I learned it was also an eye-opening experience for them. Many have never had the opportunity to interact with folks whose bodies move in different ways and who don’t communicate effectively using speech. The undergraduates recognized that if they have ever encountered such individuals, they have usually just dismissed them. Many have reported that the experience of this seminar and interacting with these folks led them to reflect on all the assumptions they have made, not just in the case of autism, but about their biases around other people too. That’s a gift that the nonspeaking cohorts have given to these undergraduates that have been lucky enough to participate.
Jenn: That’s awesome. Thank you, Vikram!
Vikram: Well, you are welcome!
I had an awesome time talking with Vikram as he is such a genuine individual. Getting the opportunity firsthand to learn more about his work and well as his passions were fascinating. The nonspeaking community is lucky to have such an intelligent, kind, and passionate ally on their side. The work he is doing in the research community as well as raising awareness among college students is truly inspiring. I-ASC wouldn’t be able to do this work without him! Thank you, Vikram!