Signs for Mass HysteriaIn the last few years, I have become interested in shifting the predominantly cognitive focus of mental health research by considering more fully the role of everyday sociality. For instance, my 2015 article Mass Hysteria in Le Roy, New York with Donna Goldstein regarding an alleged case of mass hysteria in an area known for extreme forms of environmental toxicity, published in the journal American Ethnologist, demonstrates the need for more attention to the social role of expertise in influencing popular understandings of the brain.

My main interest, however, is in turning the lens of sociality onto linguistic manifestations of autism, particularly in regard to what scholars have observed as the unique ‘intonation pattern’ of persons on the autism spectrum. While researchers have focused almost exclusively on such phenomena as cognitive, I am interested in the ways that persons with autism use language strategically to navigate their social worlds, a point convincingly made by a small but growing number of linguistic anthropologists.

My specific research regards a sociolinguistic practice popularly associated with Asperger’s but rarely analyzed: the prolonged and fluent adoption of non-local dialect features, or in laymen’s terms, “foreign accent.” For sociolinguists who view second dialect acquisition as a difficult social achievement importantly related to identity, this practice presents a paradox. How do individuals associated with such a purportedly “asocial” syndrome accomplish an activity that is by all accounts intensely social? I am currently attempting to investigate this paradox through combined use of ethnographic and discourse analytic methodologies.