Um, Uh,… Unmasking Autism


In everyday conversation, speech fillers convey social context, filling normal pauses in speech and indicating whether a pause will be short, using “uh”, or longer, using “um”. Sex, age, and education also influence the use of “um” and “uh”- where women, younger people, and those with higher levels of education use “um” more frequently, and “uh” is more commonly uttered by men, older individuals, and people with fewer years of formal education. 

As an expert in linguistics and autismDr. Julia Parish-Morris knew that previous research found that children with ASD tend to use speech fillers, specifically “um”, less frequently than their peers with typical development. However, no research had been done about whether the use of “um” and “uh” by females vs. males carried over to individuals with autism. Understanding this would provide a small – but telling - insight into social differences in boys with ASD compared with girls with ASD.

Dr. Parish-Morris and her team analyzed conversations from 49 boys and 16 girls with autism aged 6-17 years old and compared them to conversations with typically developing children of the same age. Dr. Parish-Morris’ research showed a subtle, but important, finding: while boys with ASD use “um” fillers less than frequently than their typically developing counterparts, girls with ASD used “um” nearly as much as girls with typical development. 

“The findings of our study don’t conflict with prior research, but they did show that the previous findings were valid only for boys with ASD, and not for girls,” explained Parish-Morris. “In fact, along with other recent behavioral research on sex based differences in gesturing, these findings suggest some girls with ASD may adopt subtle gender-typical language patterns that may effectively ‘camouflage’ their social communication difficulties. This reinforces the idea that we need to find more accurate and appropriate ways of identifying these core symptoms in both boys and girls.”

“Examining the use of ‘um’ and ‘uh’ is a small example of how established findings about ASD may differ for girls and boys. However, the implications are dramatic: what other assumptions are we making about girls with ASD, based on research done primarily in with boys?” said Dr. Parish-Morris.

The Center for Autism Research has many studies open to individuals of all ages- with and without autism. To learn how you can help us advance the science of autism, visit the Enrollment page on the CAR web site.