All in the Family: Parental Influence on Language Acquisition in Children with Autism

Parent and adolescent girl outside in winter. Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Photo courtesy of Pixabay

Letitia Naigles, a University of Connecticut professor of psychological sciences, has received $1.6 million from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders to investigate variation of language usage among school age children with autism spectrum disorder.

The Center for Disease Control estimates 1 in 59 children in the U.S. have autism spectrum disorder (ASD), which translates to roughly 1.3 million children.

One of the hallmarks of ASD is problems communicating, both using and understanding language. However, language use among children with ASD is incredibly diverse, ranging from age-appropriate language use to being completely non-verbal.

Naigles has been studying three groups of children with ASD since they were diagnosed as toddlers to follow their linguistic development over time. These children are now between 8 and 17 years old.

This new project will allow her to continue to look at this group and hopefully gain further insights into what accounts for the diversity of language usage among children with ASD.

“These children are now in middle childhood to adolescence, allowing us to study language use appropriate to this age, its relationship to ‘individual’ early child and parent language measures from the UConn Longitudinal Study of Early Language,” Naigles says. “We are also adding ‘interactive’ measures drawn from parent-child conversational dynamics.”

Naigles hopes to uncover the relationships, or lack thereof, between different language areas like grammatical, semantic and pragmatic usage. She will also study how well early childhood measures of these factors will predict them later in life.

This project is a collaboration with Deborah Fein in the clinical psychology program at UConn, and with Ethan Weed and Riccardo Fusaroli at the School of Communication and Culture and Interacting Minds Center at Aarhus University in Denmark. The collaboration brings together expertise on language, ASD, and innovative statistical modeling of conversational dynamics and parent-child interactions in language development.

Naigles will look at the role parents play in aiding the linguistic development of their children who have ASD. If parents use more diverse and grammatically complex language during their child’s formative years, the child may have more sophisticated language in their school-age years.

Naigles is also interested in looking at how conversational behavior varies among children with ASD and how that impacts their school-age language use.

“I’m very excited to re-visit all of our wonderful families again, to investigate new aspects of the children’s language and to keep working on the puzzle of why their language varies so much,” Naigles says.

Naigles and her collaborators recently published a paper in Cognition demonstrating influences of parental speech on the language of children with ASD during early childhood; the new grant will enable them to extend their statistical modelling of outcomes to children’s language during middle childhood and adolescence.

Naigles received her Ph.D. from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the director of the UConn Child Language Lab, the Developmental program, and the Cognitive Science program, and the head of UConn KIDS. Her research focuses on the interacting roles of linguistic input and linguistic/cognitive/social/neurological predispositions in children’s acquisition of word meanings, sentence structures and discourse patterns in both typically developing children and children who have been diagnosed with autism.

This project is NIH Grant No.: 1 R01 DC016665-01A1

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