Distinguished linguistic anthropologist Dr. Elinor Ochs presented “Talking to Children and the Limits of Culture” last night in the Lander Auditorium.

As a guest speaker for the 2003 Lewis Henry Morgan Lecture series titled “Becoming a Speaker of Culture,” Ochs summarized her research on child development through linguistic and cultural interactions.

“My research has mainly concentrated on the ways in which children become competent members of society and how culture limits children’s development,” Ochs said. “In order to study this subject, my colleagues and I focused on two different categories – we drew from different fieldwork of mine and others that address the limits of culture within several different geographic regions, and we examined the impact of culture on the development of children who are developmentally and neurologically impaired.”

During the first half of her presentation, Ochs compared the different approaches to Child Directed Communication (CDC) of Samoan and Euro-American middle class child-caregiver interactions.

“We are interested in communication that goes beyond speech,” Ochs said. “Any system that people use to communicate, and we are not just interested in the communication between moms and infants, but also between infants and sibling caregivers.”

Outlined in a PowerPoint presentation, Ochs summarized several different classifications of communication by which she and her colleagues compared the CDCs of the two cultures. Video clips from Ochs’ field research in Samoa showed interactions she observed in different cultural situations.

“The second leg of my presentation focuses on communication with children who have developmental disorders, mainly children with autism. We were recently contacted by the Cure Autism Now Project (2003) who asked us to analyze a huge video archive with clips of kids interacting with therapists and teachers,” she said. “Several characteristics of children with autism are that they have a lack of early orientation to caregivers features, the child adverts gaze, has a difficulty taking in perspective (Theory of Mind), and often has a superior visual and musical memory.”

According to Ochs, Soma Mukhopadhyay, a mother from Bangalore, India, developed a communication method with her severely autistic son, Tito, which allowed him to express his thoughts and feelings. Although originally diagnosed with mental retardation, Tito has been identified as a highly gifted child by a clinical institute in England with the help of his mother’s communication techniques.

“Soma has challenged the assumed link between non-verbal children with autism and mental retardation,” Ochs said. “The remarkable aspect to Soma’s approach is that she is very innovative, she uses communication strategies that diverge from Bengali common simplification of communication with children. Soma communicates with autistic children through a grid system with numbers and letters, which might lower the task complexity for the child.”

A video clip of an American speech therapist shows an autistic child presented with written words, positioned directly in front of the therapist, who repeats the word slowly with over-exaggerated expression. According to Ochs, Soma, however, much like the communication techniques of the Samoans, sits to the side of the child, avoids continuous praise, and speaks in a faster tempo with a stern tone.

“Soma is tireless. She wakes up at 4 in the morning and recites prayers until her son wakes up,” Ochs described. “She has an abiding faith that the children she works with have intelligence. During a session with Soma and Dov [a child shown in a video clip], who was never able to communicate with his family members, she asks him ‘Where did you go this morning,’ and he writes back, ‘to Temple.’ Soma asked ‘Do you like Temple,’ and Dov spelled back ‘Yes,’ and then she asked why, and he spelled ‘Because I feel closer to God.”

A new school is being designed based on Soma’s approach to communication. However, according to Ochs, the limits of culture hover over and possibly cloud the transition from the accepted techniques of working with autistic children to Soma’s highly effective yet non-traditional techniques.

“Is it possible for caretakers of autistic children to relearn their communication techniques?” Senior Callid Keefe asked Ochs, in response to the noted difficulty of separating the CDC of normal children and those with developmental disorders, perhaps even attempting to adapt to more Samoan-like communication skills.

“We are saying as anthropologists that we think that we understand why parents are having such a hard time,” Ochs answered. “Even after going over 18,000 pages of transcripts from research done in Samoa, I could not help myself, when handed a young boy, but to respond with the same communication techniques that I was brought up with as a child. These things just come out of your mouth and it’s hard to help yourself because these things are very deeply rooted.

“We really need to look at how family members communicate,” Ochs concluded. “Within cultural context there is a reason to pause, but I believe that it is possible for caretakers to relearn their techniques.”

Welzer can be reached at bwelzer@campustimes.org.

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