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Opinion

Sign language study solves autism’s pronoun mystery

by  /  27 February 2015

©iStock.com/inhauscreative

In his pioneering 1943 paper on autism, child psychiatrist Leo Kanner described a young boy who said of himself, after he stumbled and nearly fell, “You did not fall down.” Ever since this vivid account, researchers have been perplexed by the frequent misuse of personal pronouns such as ‘me’ and ‘you’ by children with autism.

Some experts theorize that children with autism swap the pronouns because they are simply mimicking what others say, with little regard for the words’ meanings. Others have suggested that these mix-ups occur because the children become confused in a conversation as the speakers switch.

Most children with autism outgrow these pronoun peculiarities by their teenage years, but they still tend to avoid using pronouns, instead identifying themselves and others by name. This may be because they have a detached, third-person view of themselves and others — which may arise from a fuzzy sense of the self.

A new study supports the idea that a blurred distinction between oneself and others, rather than mimicry or a basic linguistic misunderstanding, lies at the root of the pronoun misuse.

In the study, published 3 February in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, researchers examined pronoun patterns among 15 children with autism and 18 controls, aged 5 to 14 years, all but one of whom are deaf. The one hearing child, who has autism, has deaf parents and is fluent in sign language.

Each child took a turn sitting across from one of the researchers, who used an iPad to take a photo of the child. The researcher then asked the child to identify the person in the picture. He then took a photo of himself and again asked the child to identify the person in the photo.

Unlike the spoken words ‘me’ and ‘you,’ the signs for these pronouns require the signer to gesture toward the person he is referring to, resolving any questions about simple language misuse or mimicry of pronouns.

The typically developing deaf children all used ‘you’ to identify the image of the researcher, and 83 percent used ‘me’ to identify themselves. By contrast, only half of the deaf children with autism used ‘you’ and just 35 percent used ‘me’ correctly; the rest tended to spell out names instead. (For reasons that are unclear, none of the deaf children with autism misused the pronouns.)

The proportion of deaf children with autism who used their own name to refer to themselves is similar to that reported in two studies of hearing children with autism. This suggests that the pronoun difficulty in autism is not primarily an inability to comprehend the words.

Instead, the researchers say, the misuse or avoidance of personal pronouns stems from an inability to distinguish between oneself and others — a fundamental confusion in the children’s sense of ‘self.’


TAGS:   autism, language
  • Aaron Shield

    Hi everyone, I’m the lead author on this study and I just wanted to clarify one point. The references in the blog post above to “an inability to distinguish between oneself and others” and “a blurred distinction between oneself and others” aren’t quite accurate. We don’t claim that people with autism can’t distinguish between themselves and others — I don’t see evidence of that in our study. In fact, the kids were very good at identifying themselves in the picture — they just used names instead of pronouns. The question is why? We speculate that there may be a difference in the psychological experience of selfhood, as reflected by pronoun use. What I mean by that is that I prefer to say “that’s me” instead of “that’s Aaron”, because the word “me” is emotion-laden and connected to a feeling of selfhood — a sense of “me-ness”. But children with autism don’t appear to have the same preference for pronouns. In fact, they prefer to use names – their own name – to refer to themselves, at least in the context of this picture identification task. The use of the name seems relatively detached compared to a pronoun, almost like a third-person stance. But I would caution that this idea is quite speculative, and needs to be tested more in future work. There very well could be other factors at work here. Some colleagues on the autism spectrum have suggested that names seem more *precise* to them than pronouns, because, for example, the name “Aaron Shield” refers to one specific person, while the pronouns “you” or “me” could mean any person who uses them. So, the mystery hasn’t quite been solved, though I do think that studying how deaf children on the spectrum use sign language gives us clues about the nature of autistic communication that we would not have access to by only studying hearing children acquiring spoken language. And that, I think, is the main point of the paper, which is very nicely conveyed in Nicholette’s post.

    • Rosanne Katon Walden

      Very interesting!!! My son who has moderate/severe autism is on academic diploma track in a public highschool where he is the only student with autism. He has always had severe speech “intitution” issues and loves reading non fiction but is driven crazy by the leaps of linguistic faith needed to have fun reading fiction. In order to get his diploma he needs to complete 2 years of a foreign language. We discovered that in our state sign language can satisfy that requirement. His speech teachers are all against this, saying that his learning sign will stop the growth of his current speech improvements. I think that any tool that can help him communicate with society is helpful.

      My son still misuses personal pronouns. He has excellent selfesteem and if asked how he would prefer to refer to himself- by his name or me, he would probably call himself “Elvis”!

      • Terry Waltz

        If sign isn’t the choice, get your son into a foreign language class taught using TPRS (not TPR, it’s different.) We have great success with children on the spectrum, because unlike most traditionally-taught language classes, TPRS focuses on acquisition, which happens through saying meaningful things and giving kids enough repetition in an interesting way so they can acquire, the same way they acquired their 1st language.

      • Rachel

        It is a pervasive myth that sign language use delays speech development. http://c445781.r81.cf0.rackcdn.com/wp_SigningwithBabies&Children.pdf

      • Katherine

        Echoing Rachel’s comment below. The misconception than signing inhibits language development or causes regression is sadly still widespread among special educators and SLPs. In fact, research has shown the opposite it true. Acquisition of sign language actually promulgates spoken language and cognitive development for ALL children, and often is the most effective communication bridge for children with special needs. As a teacher of ASL, I would WELCOME you child in my classroom! Read some more and stand your ground with the IEP team.
        http://www.highscope.org/file/NewsandInformation/ReSourceReprints/Winter2010-2011/ReadySignGo.pdf
        Dancing with Words: Signing for Hearing Children’s Literacy author, Marilyn Daniels

      • maia

        i have autism and i loved learning sign language, it really opens up your body language and how you communicate: it’s a great idea. Unfortunately, awful eye-tracking (can’t see the ball in sport, for instance, or judge speed of oncoming cars) meant i couldn’t track the hands signing:( I’d really encourage sign language learning for an autistic person: it really explores how you communicate and makes you think and change it. Plus, deaf people are hot (their eyes always alert, watching); they’re a very opening, welcoming community to anyone who tries to learn their language, so he’ll expand his circle of ‘tolerant open-minded acquaintances and possible friends’ and learn about another oppressed minority group; they actually live there (it’s a native american language) so he can actually get fluent rather than learn rubbish french; and there are deaf autistic people too, who might like to meet someone else autistic who can communicate with them! Some of these arguments might work better on the teachers than others…!

    • Carolyn Ogburn

      It would be helpful, I should think, to ask this question of autistic people who may very well know and be able to articulate their personal experiences with pronouns, in order to shape your additional research.

      • Aaron Shield

        Carolyn, YES! This is definitely the smartest approach. I’m lucky to have some incredible colleagues with autism who have articulated their experiences regarding names and pronouns, and who I’m collaborating with on future projects. Stay tuned…

      • B B Shepherd

        I was thinking the exact same thing. When are researchers going to truly start utilizing the best resources out there – Autistic adults!

    • Dani

      Has anybody asked any of these kids why they use the person’s name instead of just saying “me” or “you”?

      Or asked any autistic Deaf adults the same question? Because autistic hearing adults who have switched pronouns are often quite clear about why — that it’s an echolalia thing, and that if you’re relying heavily on echolalia in communicating, of course your pronouns are frequently going to be reversed.

    • mandy

      As an autistic person, thank you for clarifying that.

    • Candace Cothern

      I am by no means an expert on the subject, but in my nearly 40 years of teaching Special Education, I have
      had the opportunity to work with many children on the spectrum. I was
      fascinated by your comment about the blurred distinction between self and others. I have always speculated
      that this also applies to physical boundaries. I have often been walked on, sat on, run into by our precious children, even as adults, as if they were not aware of where they end and I begin!!

      • maia

        a diagnosis of autism subsumes a diagnosis of dyspraxia, and one of its million aspects is an inability to track the outline of your own body, to see from another person’s point of view in the most literal sense (if leading a blind person, you will walk them into walls) or make external objects part of your own body (bats, rackets, cars… i can’t drive, i haven’t got a clue where the car’s edges are. Part of me thinks that, in this, i am more logical than you guys – you add a car to your proprioception?!)

        As an adult, i fall off curbs, walk into lampposts, have many permanent injuries due to my dyspraxia/autism. I suspect that the abstract mind builds on the concrete mind, which evolved first: literally solipsistic in the concrete, my body, and therefore my mind

    • Wenn Lawson

      I’m an autistic adult. I know I use my name because if ‘you are you, who am I?’ ‘I am Wenn’. It simply makes much more sense to use my name and is so much clearer. I am now 63 and can use pro-nouns with more ease than when I was younger… but, I still have to take the time to process this, just to be sure! Wenn http://www.wennlawson.com

    • Helen Krummenacker

      As someone with many spectrum traits and many officially diagnosed friends, I suggest you listen to your colleagues, who have a more realistic viewpoint:
      Autism comes with a dislike of ambiguity, and pronouns are inherently ambiguous. Pointing also is a little inaccurate. The photo is a photo of a person, but is not the person. If you were to label a photograph, you wouldn’t label it “me”– you would label it Aaron Shield. If you labeled a photo of me, you would label it “Helen Krummenacker”, not “you”. Those labels make sense for all audiences of all time. If you are supposed to identify by pointing, there’s a sense that you are not labeling but identifying– but the picture is not me, it is a *picture* of me. The picture is not you, it is a *image* of you. The child is making it clear that the name is a label for the subject of the picture, but the picture is not the person.
      Suppose you are a child, and you hear an adult say, “Say I have the ball.” Or was it, “Say, ‘I have the ball’.” Are you supposed to say you or I when you respond to them? Suppose I tell you, “He said I’m fat” or is it, “He said, ‘I’m fat'”?

      Autistic people desire accuracy. Pronouns have built in ambiguity flaws. Names do not.

      • Jane

        Yes! I’m Asperger’s rather than autistic, but similar enough for this purpose. I’d never thought about it before, but yes, precision all the way. Which leads to problems in itself…. I have a mild dislike of the use of my surname as part of my identifying label, because it isn’t “me”, it’s an indicator of which male I’m most closely related to this week. But without the surname, “Jane” isn’t a very precise identifier. There’s probably more than one Jane in any moderate-sized group. I’m actually perfectly happy to be listed with a proper unique identifier, numerics and all, to make it make it quite clear who’s who.

    • Cheree Wethered

      As a person on the spectrum, my guess is that it is more accurate to use names. You and me is to general and not specific enough. Those that are able to conform usually will but some I suspect some just don’t care, or cannot let go of their need to be precise.

    • Jasper

      Aaron, fantastic to see a study author clearing up misconceptions in the reporting/press release – the inaccurate reference you mentioned stuck out to me when I read the article, and your longer explanation made a lot more sense.

  • Patricia

    Hello Aaron – you mention in your comment “because the word ‘me’ is emotion-laden and connected to a feeling of selfhood”. I was thinking, logically, that for many on the spectrum who are concrete thinkers, that pronouns are NOT really concrete or “emotion-laden”, but are instead, nebulous and fuzzy. That their NAMES are “emotion-laden”, rather than the pronouns. Which if you really think about it makes a LOT of sense.

    It seems more a difference in experiencing language, rather than a deficit.

    • Heather

      Patricia, I tend to agree with you. My 14 year old son, who is autistic, is very very particular about his name. He does ok with nicknames to a certain degree, but he will be sure to correct you about what his name is. He knows his name and it is important to him. He gets very upset if someone continues to use the wrong name when addressing him.

    • Aaron Shield

      Hi Patricia, thanks so much for your comment. I agree with you completely. When I asserted that pronouns are laden with emotion, I was really speaking about my own (non-autistic) experience of them. It could very well be that people with autism have a different emotional experience of names and pronouns. I also agree that framing these issues as differences rather than deficits can be very helpful, and am working on a paper currently that reframes some prior work in this light.

      • Patricia

        Sounds like an awesome second study. 😉 You may want to check out some facebook groups that are autistic run and ask them for input, thoughts, etc. Respectful inquiry is always appreciated. Check out the “Resources” page on http://www.autistikids.com – you might find something helpful there.

        • Aaron Shield

          Thanks for the link, Patricia! I will check it out. 🙂

      • brian

        This is the first time I have seen this distinction linguistically, the difference between ‘the emotion laden I, Me” and the un-ladened first name. (I have been looking for it in cognitive linguistics research.) Anyways, it was personally a long time before I understood what these laden emotions were when other people used “I” and “ME”, and afterwards, I can honestly say, that is something I ever ‘meant’ so it was just natural to not use the words. I’m an artist and I would never sign my work if other people didn’t always insist on it. I’m sure some autistics use the Me Me Me words because other people insist on it, they know they don’t understand the meaning, so, like, just spell ‘know’ with a ‘k’, and then everyone’s less insisting, and that is more pleasant.

    • B B Shepherd

      Agree!

  • LISA

    My Autistic son always got confussed with.. me and you etc..However he refused to learn French in Hi school,,I started talking to him in German,,and he answered me in English..yet he never learnt German…

    This i find quite bizzare..

    • Roger Davis

      Lisa. I am a firm believer that autism is linked with the soul not making a full transition into the new body.

      I have befriended an autistic man of 26 who, since he could speak, speaks with an American accent and often talks about his life in America and how he set fire to his parents farm when he was left alone.

      Your son was obviously a German in a previous life. Ask him questions in German, delve deeper and see what you can find. It is all in there waiting to come out.

  • Paula Durbin-Westby

    I seriously doubt that we do not have a “sense of self” or a “blurred distinction” between ourselves and others. Typically developing Deaf children use “appropriate” pronouns. Of course, they are typically developing but do not hear. Making a leap from what typical, but Deaf, children do, to saying that Autistics don’t have a “sense of self” is just more hype about how Autistics “lack” something in comparison. You could study any typically developing population that has another disability that is not autism, and come up with the same results. Speculation is possible only because most people are not Deaf and equate being Deaf with “having something wrong,” and therefore an element of “surprise” is introduced, which is that the Deaf people use pronouns “correctly!” Who knew! After all, they are Deaf… I think some of the earlier theories might be more accurate, the ones that say we are imitating language we hear- people referring to us as “you” when talking to us, and “me” when referring to themselves.

  • Vicki

    I am an autistic parent to autistic fraternal twin boys and an autistic daughter. Pronoun usage is an issue for 2 of my children but not the other (my daughter is hyperlexic and uses pronouns properly almost always at 5 years old). I feel like the reasons pronoun usage is an issue is because of multiple reasons. Because we avoid eye contact, it can be an issue recognizing males/females but by using their name, we can distinguish between them without confusion. Also, it is easier to track who we are discussing mentally if there is a name attached rather than just he/she or him/her because we are taking in more than just the conversation. Also, because of joint attention issues (such as an ability to follow who or what a person is gazing at/pointing to), you also have the confusion of not being able to tell which male/female a person may be referring to. There are so many different reasons why pronoun usage can be affected that I’m not sure you can find a satisfying answer to this question.

    • Aaron Shield

      Hi Vicki — thanks for your comment. I appreciate the various possibilities you mention and you’re right, there are many possible reasons for differences in pronoun usage. In fact, the scientific community has never reached a consensus about it precisely for that reason!

  • PK

    My son is on the spectrum and his sense of self is fine. Now perhaps it’s perceived differently, or ARTICULATED differently, but this ongoing perception that autistic people aren’t really “there” like “we” are is frustrating and damaging all around.

    Autism often involves language PROCESSING challenges – does my ability to talk about myself mean I don’t have a sense of self? No, it just means I have difficulty COMMUNICATING about my sense of self. Two completely different things.

    My son’s relationship to his name is VERY strong, or as you say “emotion-laden” for him. He does not like nicknames or any shortened version. He does not like any other “pet names”. His name is his name.

    I highly encourage all researchers to go online and find autistic advocates/bloggers and COMMUNICATE with THEM. Ask your questions. Get answers. Stop guessing. Postulate all you want, but looking at these things from a non-autistic perspective isn’t getting you accurate info. It’s just getting what looks like it fits from the outside. I realize that every autistic person is different – but so is every non-autistic person. So go to the sources, communicate with the sources.

    You’re work will be the richer for it.

    • Leslie

      Excellent comment!

    • Marilyn Black

      As a long-time speech-language therapist with individuals on the spectrum, I have learnt so much about my assumptions and unfair conclusions through listening to clients in longterm relational therapy, staying open to their point of view, as far as this is possible (with any other human being talking about her life, I mean). Communication skills of clients can be seen in such a different light in the context of established trust and understanding. I think PK makes a most important contribution here, and most tactfully too. Learn from individuals who identify with the subgroup you are studying. There are many articulate bloggers and the like advocating for themselves, thoughtfully and generously, and their accounts of how they see themselves, of the pain they endure when others judge them in uninformed ways, are illuminating – sometimes extremely sad, sometimes exquisitely beautiful.

  • Leslie

    ok: so wild thinking here: if autistic folks, from what I understand, often have a mind/body disconnect thing going on, and people from the north have a thousand words for snow, could it be that a picture of the self is just the body without the mind and therefore an actual different thing from whole ‘self’?

  • Liz Beattie

    Very interesting discussion. I am not autistic, & I work with students with severe learning disability/ severe communication difficulty, so perhaps my experience is limited, however I am firmly down on the precision & emotion laden aspect of using a name apposed to a pronoun. Having said that in a huge generalisation I can’t think of a student that I have worked with that does not now describe themselves with an appropriate pronoun the majority of the time. We support our students into speech through sign (for understanding as well as expression) and modelling “correct” pronoun use. It may be pertinent that in our signing system (Signalong) the signed form of the pronoun including possessives is made up of the sign for man/boy & woman/girl and then a point to the person.

    • Dani

      wow, I did not know that about Signalong. what a pain in the neck that must be for transgendered people.

  • Gabrielle

    Here’s a thought; the need for specificity…”you” & “me” are appellatios that anyone can use…Names are Specific. When Accuracy is important to an individual. …aren’t names preferable to pronouns??

  • Elizabeth J. (Ibby) Grace

    Aaron Shield is one of the scientists who has shown to be exceptionally diligent about inviting Autistic and ASL-speaking Deaf research partners into the work. I am one of the Autistic colleagues he has invited to collaborate with him on further research about comparative use of pronouns.

    There is no evidence that he believes we have no sense of self; he is now looking into the idea with me and other Autistic and researcher colleagues (as he comments above) that our sense of self might be precise in a different way. We are working on ways to interrogate the data from different angles of concept formation to see if this idea is more explanatory and better-fitting.

    This work is very exciting and it is a joy to be involved.

    • Aaron Shield

      Thank you so much for this, Ibby!

      • maia

        i am autistic and i feel no sense of self, i feel i don’t exist, because i cannot connect with people, i can’t speak to people and be heard, i can’t affect how they treat me or interact with me due to appalling social skills, and i can’t have real conversations like people in novels and autobiographies or close relationships (bring on the violins sob sob) but does mean you feel like a ghost, unconnected, i think you are real in how you are connected to others. Because i’m annoying/aggressive/whatever person, i can go to work fulltime and end up knowing nobody, never manage to worm my way into others’ conversations or groups, for instance. Hostages feel the same, they feel they cease to exist because they no longer are related to the world, which proves it’s true (?!). But my autism seems to be atypical, like 2 other girls i’ve met i can’t bear being alone

  • Patricia

    Aaron – thanks for contacting the autistic community on this. Can you email me at your convenience ([email protected])? I’d like to link to your studies on my website’s Scientific Info page (http://www.autistikids.com/scientific-information.html)

    Thanks!

  • Tania

    I am autistic and I, and a few of my autistic friends have had a lot of trouble with our sense of self. I used to watch people intensely wondering how they just knew how to be. I didn’t ever feel as if I knew how to be. I mimicked language and behavior to try to appear ‘normal’. I actually use pronouns rather than names, and if I am expected to use names, I often shorten them or use nicknames. I do not like using peoples names in conversations. If I know I am going to need to use a persons name I have to practice it before I see them. My daughter always used to have trouble with her pronouns, and used to refer to herself in the third person. I’m not sure if any of this is relevant, but I obviously have a different experience to the other people posting. We are all different, but I thought I would share my perspective.

    • brian

      hi Tania, this ‘mimicking of language’ to appear normal is familiar to me, and I think many others.
      it is a good way to get involved even if you don’t really want to use those words, or rather the feeling that accompanies the words like glue.
      Is it like, you don’t want to use those ‘feelings’ that everyone else uses with those words?
      I know I didn’t.

    • Becky

      Tania – My two autistic kids also have trouble using proper names of any kind–people, places, titles, etc. I’ve always wondered why that is–my daughter tells me using names makes her too anxious–she’s afraid of how she and/or the other person will react. Is this why you don’t like using them too?

  • Mike

    These behaviors describe my son who has both Auditory Processing Disorder and Sensory Processing Disorder. However, he does not have Autism. This leads me to believe that the pronoun issue is related to processing and not Autism. While individuals with Autism may have processing issues, the pronoun misapplication is not unique to individuals with Autism.

  • usethebrainsgodgiveyou

    Aaron, thanks for your openness. My son, at age 3, had an extensive vocabulary that was visually related…he could name almost any noun. A pronoun is not selective enough. How can “me” be “me” or “you”? Why not just say Rose, or say Aaron, so we know exactly who you mean. He was taught language by showing him pictures, and acting out non-noun words like running, love, go, …verbs, adverbs, and prepositions-which he still didn’t understand at age 14 until they were presented visually. What it actually was was a sentence, and you filled it in. If it made sense, it was a preposition or prepositional phrase.

    “The cat is_[____]_the box.” In, on, on top of, under, over, behind…etc. I think if you thought visually, it would be easier to understand. Few academics do.

    Secondly…I remember my son being 3 and not recognizing himself in the mirror. I mean, he was basically a happy kid, but that concerned me. It made little sense until I saw the TED-talk by Dr.Jill Bolte Taylor. She had a stroke on the left side of her brain, which effectively shut it down. She talked about joining the la-la land on the right side of her brain, where she was “one with the universe”, and there was no “me”, no sense of identity. Ben took one of those tests that were popular a while back which indicated he was 95% right brained in his choices. I know people question this dichotomy, but I don’t. I think you are born with a preference, like handedness. You no more use one side of your brain than you use one hand. (Think of typing using only one hand. YIKES… well, think of thinking using only one side of your brain. Of course you use both sides!)

    Children who are sent to special ed classes are often visual learners. It has no bearing on intelligence. That is a totally seperate issue.

    Dyslexic people “think in pictures”. Visual thinkers are so often so confusing to people who think typically (most teachers), they are ostracized and punished just like the sinister (left-handed) children of old.

    I’ve probably made no sense. Oh, well, I gave you what I had…

    Think of how much of the “behaviors” of right-brained or visual learners could be explained by their wiring…instead of their psychological “maladies”.

  • Roger Davis

    I have a theory that the Autistic child’s soul is somewhere between the previous self, the the new identity, it has not made the complete transition.

    With this thought they could be looking at themselves from a different viewpoint.

  • Kristin

    Hi. My son is 15 is moderate on the spectrum. He began talking at the end of Kindergarten and had emergence if lots of language at about 6 1/2 to 7 years. He still struggles with this all these years later. I chalked it up to late language development and exposure to being “taught” at a language level higher than his developmental age.
    I also have wondered about using ESL approach to teaching language as they are learning our complex system at a later time.
    I believe Glen Doman may have looked at this. Look up NACD.org

    • Becky

      My autistic son was in a 2nd grade ESL reading class when he was in 4th grade, and he enjoyed and did very well in it. I would love to learn more about how this approach might work.

  • Michael

    In some languages such as Thai, there is often a preference for using names rather than pronouns despite tbe availabillity of pronouns in the language.

  • Anna Gould

    Maybe autistic children are taking pronouns literally, so when they repeatedly hear themselves called “you”, they think that is the term for themselves, and they hear others call themselves “me”, which should mean it is the word for others.
    Then of course at other times they will hear others referred to as “you” as well.
    Sounds pretty confusing, really.

  • jenifer

    Please, somebody speaks portuguese. I`m from Brasil…

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