University of Southern California
Mrs. T.H. Chan Division of Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy
Redesigning Lives Globally
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Olga Solomon PhD

Olga Solomon

Assistant Professor

Room: CHP 222R
Phone: (323) 442-2154
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Olga Solomon is an interdisciplinary researcher committed to the goals of occupational science to explore the mutually constitutive relation of human activity, experience and meaning. An applied linguist with a background in clinical psychology and linguistic anthropology, she is interested in human engagement and participation in everyday activities and ways in which these activities intersect with both personal experience and family life. Her research examines the sociocultural, psychosocial and structural phenomena that supports everyday engagement and participation with an eye for mediating potential of social practices, innovations and technologies. Dr. Solomon also holds an undergraduate degree in electrical engineering, which augments her interdisciplinary research related to the use of technology for social and therapeutic purposes. Because she came to the United States from Russia in her young adulthood, her immigrant experience shaped her research interests in how meaning is communicated and shared across difference, whether due to neurological conditions such as autism, socio-cultural or socioeconomic factors and even across species such as in human-animal social interaction.
Her ethnographic research has been dedicated to micro-video analysis of social interaction as a way of looking beyond language, to systematically examine how children with autism engage in meaningful activities with their family members, therapists, teachers and peers in daily life. The abiding interest of her research is in how children with autism co-construct meaning and social relationships with others employing socio-communicative resources that are available to them and their communicative partners in their shared social environment. Because these processes often take place in the context of narrative discourse, narrative analysis figures centrally in her work. She uses a multi-method approach to examine narrative both as a text and as a social interaction, focusing on how communicative bodies in cultural space use a range of semiotic resources (speech, literacy-based artifacts, objects, equipment, therapy animals, etc.) to engage in shared actions, activities and meaning-making that shape human life. The most important finding of her research so far has been in demonstrating the remarkable communicative abilities that severely impacted children with autism are able to display once their social environment is organized and adapted in ways that supports their communicative potentialities. Fundamental changes in educational and therapeutic practice, however, are necessary to create and maintain adaptations for the children's success in the socio-communicative sphere.

Research Interests

Dr. Solomon is an applied linguist by training, and her research offers an ethnographically informed perspective on the everyday lives of children and teens with autism and their families. She is a part of an interdisciplinary research team on an NIH-funded longitudinal ethnographic research project that involves African American children with special health care needs, their families and the practitioners who serve them. She is a recipient of a USC Zumberge Individual Faculty Innovation Award for her project, "Animal Assisted Therapy as Socially Assistive Technology: Implications for Autism." Her areas of interest include: translational research on health disparities and family life; family perspectives on developmental disability and chronic illness; autism and diversity; organization and design of educational environments and family innovation; and autism, innovative technology and animal assisted therapy. She has held National Academy of Education Postdoctoral Fellowship for a study of communicative practices of children with severe autism and was Director of the Ethnography of Autism Project at the University of California, Los Angeles. Since 2003 she has served as a advisory board member for the Innovative Technology for Autism Initiative (ITA) of Cure Autism Now and Autism Speaks foundations. She was the co-editor, with linguistic anthropologist Elinor Ochs, of a special issue on autism in the journal "Discourse Studies" (2004). Dr. Solomon has also been a contributor on 'Autism, Savant Ability and Williams Syndrome' for the "Encyclopedia of Giftedness, Creativity and Talent" (Barbara Kerr, ed.) published by SAGE in 2009.


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) in Applied Linguistics
University California, Los Angeles

Master of Arts (MA) in Clinical Psychology
Antioch University

Bachelor of Science (BS) in Electrical Engineering
Northwestern Polytechnical Institute (St. Petersburg, Russia)


Book Chapters

Solomon, O. (2013). Autism and affordances of achievement: Narrative genres and parenting practices. In N. J. Long, & H. L. Moore (Eds.), The social life of achievement (Wyse series in social anthropology). (pp. 120-138). Oxford, England: Berghahn Press. Link to full text

Solomon, O. (2012). The uses of technology for and with children with autism spectrum disorders. In L. L’Abate & D. A. Kaiser (Eds.), Handbook of technology in psychology, psychiatry, and neurology: Theory, research, and practice. (pp. 155-177). Hauppage, NY: Nova Science Publishers. Link to full text

Solomon, O. (2011). Rethinking baby talk. In A. Duranti, E. Ochs, & B. B. Schieffelin (Eds.), Handbook of language socialization. (pp. 121-140). New York, NY: Wiley-Blackwell. Link to full text

Solomon, O. (2011). Body in autism: A view from social interaction. In P. McPherron & V. Ramanathan (Eds.), Language, body, and health. (pp. 105-142). New York, NY: Mouton de Gruyter. Link to full text

Ochs, E., & Solomon, O. (2005). Practical logic and autism. In C. Casey & R. B. Edgerton (Eds.), A companion to psychological anthropology: Modernity and psychocultural change. (pp. 140-167). Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell. Link to full text

Journal Articles

Solomon, O. (2015). "But-he'll fall!": Children with autism, interspecies intersubjectivity, and the problem of 'being social'. Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry: An International Journal of Cross-Cultural Health Research, 39, 323-344. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

'Being autistic' or 'having Autism Spectrum Disorder' implies a limited range of 'being social,' but the in situ organization of interaction, what Maynard and Marlaire (Qual Soc 15(2):177-202, 1992) call the 'interactional substrate,' within which this delimitation enfolds is usually hidden from sight. Analysis of processes constituting different 'interactional substrates' provides a view of how one comes to be known by and to self and others as a certain kind of being who is available (or not) for acting and feeling in certain ways. People diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 2013) are often described as 'being' impaired in intersubjective understanding of others. But the story of ASD as an impairment of sociality and intersubjectivity becomes more complicated when animals enter into the picture. I consider two interactional substrates: a psychological interview in a mental health clinic, and an animal-assisted activity in a child's neighborhood. I aim to elucidate the practical problems of 'being social' encountered by two children with ASD, both nine-year-old girls, within these two very differently organized interactional substrates. I consider ways in which 'being with' therapy animals provides a way of 'being social' through "sensory modalities of knowing" (Haraway, When species meet, 2008:371).

Solomon, O., Heritage, J., Yin, L., Maynard, D. W., & Bauman, M. L. (2015). 'What brings him here today?': Medical problem presentation involving children with autism spectrum disorders and typically developing children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Advance online publication. doi:10.1007/s10803-015-2550-2. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

Conversation and discourse analyses were used to examine medical problem presentation in pediatric care. Healthcare visits involving children with ASD and typically developing children were analyzed. We examined how children's communicative and epistemic capabilities, and their opportunities to be socialized into a competent patient role are interactionally achieved. We found that medical problem presentation is designed to contain a 'pre-visit' account of the interactional and epistemic work that children and caregivers carry out at home to identify the child's health problems; and that the intersubjective accessibility of children's experiences that becomes disrupted by ASD presents a dilemma to all participants in the visit. The article examines interactional roots of unmet healthcare needs and foregone medical care of people with ASD.

Solomon, O., Angell, A. M., Yin, L., & Lawlor, M. C. (2015). 'You can turn off the light if you'd like': Pediatric healthcare visits for children with autism spectrum disorder as an interactional achievement. Medical Anthropology Quarterly, Advance online publication. doi:10.1111/maq.12230. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD, American Psychiatric Association 2013) is defined in biomedicine as a neuro-developmental syndrome of wide phenotypic variability (Muhle et al 2004). From a socio-cultural perspective it is a "contested category" (Silverman 2012:16): a lived experience, a way of being in the world, and a form of neurodiversity (Grinker 2010; Edding Prince 2010). Because of this dualistic framing, ASD refracts in important ways the social science research on child-parent-doctor interactions during healthcare encounters (Tates and Meeuwesen 2001). This literature, however, focuses on healthcare encounters that meet the socio-cultural expectations of normative development under implicitly 'default' conditions, i.e. most children in these studies are typically developing, white and middle-class.

Angell, A. M., & Solomon, O. (2014). The social life of health records: Understanding families' experiences of autism. Social Science & Medicine, 117, 50-57. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2014.07.020. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

Outside of the epidemiological surveillance studies of autism prevalence, health records of children diagnosed with autism have not been sufficiently examined, yet they provide an important lens for showing how autism diagnosis, services and interventions are negotiated, coordinated and choreographed by families and practitioners across multiple settings. This article provides a multifaceted understanding of these processes from an ethnographic and discourse analytic perspective that reveals structural and interactional phenomena contributing to disparities in autism diagnosis and services. We consider health records as dualistic, material-discursive artifacts that are socio-interactionally co-constructed and variably interpreted, contested and utilized across home, school and clinic contexts. We chronicle several families' experiences of their children's autism diagnoses and interventions and describe ways in which health records are socially constructed, curated and placed in the middle of clinical encounters. We show how the parents in our study draw upon health records' material-discursive properties to display epistemic authority, expertise and knowledge in interactions with healthcare and school professionals involved in authorizing and planning their children's care. We describe how the parents experience the health records' clinical portrayals of their children and themselves, and how the parents' portrayals of their children are tacitly ratified or negated in the health records. The data include health record reviews, narrative interviews with parents and practitioners, and clinical observations. These data were collected between October 2009 and August 2012 as part of a larger study on disparities in autism diagnosis, interventions and services experienced by African American children with autism and their families living in Los Angeles County, California. Our analysis reveals the central role of health records in maintaining continuity of an autism diagnosis, interventions and services. This article contributes to enhanced professional awareness, parent-professional partnerships, and equity in the provision of healthcare and human services related to autism.

Solomon, O., & Lawlor, M. C. (2013). "And I look down and he is gone": Narrating autism, elopement and wandering in Los Angeles. Social Science & Medicine, 94, 106-114. doi:10.1016/j.socscimed.2013.06.034. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

'Wandering' and 'elopement' have been identified as common in autism, affecting half of all diagnosed children ages four to ten, yet families rarely receive advice from practitioners even after the fact. Family perspectives have been missing from the literature as well as from public health and policy debates on how and when to respond to this problem. The problem of 'wandering' and 'elopement' reveals a complex intersection of larger issues encountered by families of children with autism. To consider these issues, this article examines 'wandering' and 'elopement' from the perspectives of African American mothers of children with autism, an underrepresented group in autism research. We consider how the mothers experience these behaviors and the response to these behaviors by professionals, such as service coordinators and law enforcement personnel working within various jurisdictions that become involved with the problem. We analyze the mothers' narratives about 'wandering' and 'elopement' drawn from ethnographic interviews that were collected between October 1, 2009 and August 31, 2012. These interviews were part of a larger project on disparities in autism diagnosis and services that followed a cohort of 25 four to ten-year old children. Drawing on narrative, phenomenological and interpretive traditions, we trace the mothers' developing understandings of 'wandering' and 'elopement' over time, and show how these understandings become elaborated and transformed. This article provides a nuanced, moment-to-moment and longitudinal picture of the mothers' experiences of 'wandering' and 'elopement' that enriches the cross-sectional view of large-scale surveys about the problem and contributes unique insights at the family and community levels. Implications for professional awareness, clinical practice and service provision are also suggested.

Solomon, O. (2012). Doing, being, and becoming: The sociality of children with Autism in activities with therapy dogs and other people. Cambridge Anthropology, 30, 109-126. doi:10.3167/ca.2012.300110. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

This paper examines theories of sociality against ethnographically informed understandings of the sociality of children affected by Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) interacting with therapy dogs and other people. I explore from an occupational science and occupational therapy perspective how theories of human sociality inform our understanding of the ways in which a child’s social engagement is supported during child–dog interactions; and how analysis of the data might problematize some theoretical assumptions about sociality, specifically, the primacy of language and theory of mind, and the ‘humans only’ position.

Solomon, O. (2010). What a dog can do: Children with autism and therapy dogs in social interaction. Ethos, 38, 143-166. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1352.2010.01085.x. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

For almost 50 years specially trained dogs have been used in clinical and family settings to facilitate how children with autism engage in social interaction and participate in everyday activities. Yet little theoretical grounding and empirical study of this socioclinical phenomenon has been offered by social science. This article draws on interdisciplinary scholarship to situate the study of the therapeutic use of dogs for children and teens with autism. Two case studies of service and therapy dogs' mediating social engagement of children with autism in relationships, interactions, and activities illustrate how dogs support children's communication, their experience of emotional connection with others, and their participation in everyday life. Theorizing this process enriches approaches to sociality in psychological anthropology.

Solomon, O. (2010). Sense and the senses: Anthropology and the study of autism. Annual Review of Anthropology, 39, 241-259. doi:10.1146/annurev.anthro.012809.105012. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

As a clinical category and a sociocultural phenomenon, autism occupies a prominent albeit ambiguous place in ongoing social science and humanities debates about empathy, intersubjectivity, intentionality, epistemological certainty, and moral agency. Autism is used as a counterexample to feeling empathy and understanding other people's beliefs and intentions. Alternatively, it is given as evidence of the limitless potential and neurodiversity of the human mind. This review examines the field of autism research relevant to anthropology of the senses. It considers the production of knowledge about autism as a clinically relevant category at the intersection of sense as culturally organized competence in meaning making and the senses as a culturally normative and institutionally ratified sensory and perceptual endowment. In such a distinction, both sense and the senses are paths toward and objects of the empirical understanding of autism.

Ochs, E., & Solomon, O. (2010). Autistic sociality. Ethos, 38, 69-92. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1352.2009.01082.x. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

This article is based on our decade-long linguistic anthropological research on children with autism to introduce the notion of "autistic sociality" and to discuss its implications for an anthropological understanding of sociality. We define human sociality as consisting of a range of possibilities for social coordination with others that is influenced by the dynamics of both individuals and social groups. We argue that autistic sociality is one of these possible coordinations. Building our argument on ethnographic research that documents how sociality of children with autism varies across different situational conditions, we outline a "domain model" of sociality in which domains of orderly social coordination flourish when certain situational conditions are observed. Reaching toward an account that comprehends both social limitations and competencies that come together to compose autistic sociality, our analysis depicts autistic sociality not as an oxymoron but, rather, as a reality that reveals foundational properties of sociality along with the sociocultural ecologies that demonstrably promote or impede its development. In conclusion, we synthesize the "domain model" of sociality to present an "algorithm for autistic sociality" that enhances the social engagement of children with this disorder.

Solomon, O., & Bagatell, N. (2010). Autism: Rethinking the possiblities. Ethos, 38, 1-7. doi:10.1111/j.1548-1352.2009.01078.x. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

This special issue of Ethos brings together the work of scholars from multiple disciplines including anthropology, occupational science, and education. The authors share two main goals. First, this interdisciplinary collection of articles highlights the importance of rethinking research on autism. Each article encourages movement away from dominant biomedical discourses that focus largely on symptoms to a more phenomenological and ethnographic stance that addresses experiences of living with autism. The second goal is to rethink possibilities for social interaction and participation for people with autism. In this introduction, we briefly review current biomedical accounts of autism as a disorder that affects social cognition and explore the importance of rethinking these assumptions. We suggest that this discussion is particularly well suited for psychological anthropology's concerns with the psychological and the social in an individual's experience and place in society.

Solomon, O. (2008). Language, autism, and childhood: An ethnographic perspective. Annual Review of Applied Linguistics, 28, 150-169. doi:10.1017/S0267190508080148. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

This article reviews recent ethnographic studies on how children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) use language in their everyday lives: how they are socialized into sociocultural competence, how they participate in the social world as members of families and communities, how they draw on structural properties of social interaction to participate in everyday talk, and to what extent the European American habitus of child-directed communication supports or hinders their communicative development. Other studies reviewed in this article examine language use in autism in relation to narrative, question–answer sequences, bilingualism, accountability and morality, and politeness. The studies frame autism more ethno-methodologically than clinically and capture how children with ASD actively participate in the co-construction of their life worlds through communication with others. This perspective makes visible aspects of language use and everyday experiences of children with ASD and their families that are usually obscured in other theoretical approaches to autism. Through participant observation and extensive naturalistic data collection involving video and audio recording of everyday interaction, ethnographic studies reviewed in this article shed light on patterns of language use and link these patterns to particular cultural practices, making language of children with autism more intelligible and interpretable.

Ochs, E., Solomon, O., & Sterponi, L. (2005). Limitations and transformations of habitus in child-directed communication. Discourse Studies, 7, 547-583. doi:10.1177/1461445605054406. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

This article offers an alternative approach to paradigms that cast culture solely as a nurturing influence on children’s language development. It proposes a dimensional model of Child-Directed Communication (CDC) to delineate ways in which a community’s habitus may impede the communicative potential of children with neuro developmental conditions such as severe autism. It argues that certain features of Euro-American CDC are illadapted for autistic children. Due to inertia, caregivers often find themselves unable to transcend the limitations of CDC habitus. Yet, occasionally, a transformation in CDC emerges that more effectively engages children with impairments. The article analyzes one such transformation forged in the niche of a unique mother–son relationship in India and then introduced in the USA.

Solomon, O. (2004). Narrative introductions: Discourse competence of children with autistic spectrum disorders. Discourse Studies, 6, 253–276. doi:10.1177/1461445604041770. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

This article examines the discourse competence of high-functioning children with autistic spectrum disorders (ASD) to participate in narrative introduction sequences with family members. The analysis illuminates the children’s own efforts to launch narratives, as well as their ability to build upon the contributions of others. Ethnographic, discourse analytic methodology is integrated with the theory of discourse organization and the weak central coherence account of autism. Introductions of both personal experience narratives as well as fictional narratives (from television programs, computer games and other media) are examined. The children were especially competent in the use of stable introductory practices when launching fictional narratives, pre-organized by the media of expression. Their challenge was not in the introduction, but in the narrative co-telling, which often was not globally organized over an extended course of propositions. The heterogeneity of the ASD children’s discourse competence and its implications for discourse analysis are discussed.

Ochs, E., Kremer-Sadlik, T., Sirota, K. G., & Solomon, O. (2004). Autism and the social world: An anthropological perspective. Discourse Studies, 6, 147-183. doi:10.1177/1461445604041766. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

This article offers an anthropological perspective on autism, a condition at once neurological and social, which complements existing psychological accounts of the disorder, expanding the scope of inquiry from the interpersonal domain, in which autism has been predominantly examined, to the socio-cultural one. Persons with autism need to be viewed not only as individuals in relation to other individuals, but as members of social groups and communities who act, displaying both social competencies and difficulties, in relation to socially and culturally ordered expectations of behavior. The article articulates a socio-cultural approach to perspective-taking in autism in three social domains: (1) participating in conversational turn-taking and sequences; (2) formulating situational scenarios; and (3) interpreting socio-cultural meanings of indexical forms and behavior. Providing ethnographic data on the everyday lives of high-functioning children with autism and Asperger syndrome, the article outlines a cline of competence across the three domains, from most success in conversational turn-taking to least in inferring indexical meanings. Implications of these abilities and limitations are considered for theoretical approaches to society and culture, illuminating how members of social groups are at once shaped by, and are agents of, social life and cultural understanding.

Ochs, E., Kremer-Sadlik, T., Solomon, O., & Sirota, K. G. (2001). Inclusion as social practice: Views of children with autism. Social Development, 10, 399-419. doi:10.1111/1467-9507.00172. Link to full text Abstract →← Abstract 

This study illuminates the social realities of inclusion of 16 high functioning children with autism (HFA) in public schools in the United States. The study suggests that the practice of inclusion rests primarily on unaffected schoolmates rather than teachers, who typically are occupied monitoring academic progress and disciplinary transgressions across a range of children. Utilizing ethnographic observations and video recordings of quotidian classroom and playground activities, the analysis elucidates how classmates employ a range of positive and negative inclusion practices that either integrate or distance autistic children. Ethnographic observations of the study population indicate that the children whose diagnosis was fully disclosed enjoyed more consistent social support in the classroom and on the school playground. The study further suggests that high functioning children with autism exhibit a range of reactions to negative inclusion practices such as rejection and scorn. Such reactions include oblivion, immediate behavioral response, and emotionally charged accounts of disturbing school incidents shared after-the-fact with family members. Significantly, these observations indicate that HFA children can be cognizant of and distressed by others' derisive stances and acts, despite symptomatic difficulties in interpreting others' intentions and feelings.