Children with autism or other conditions that fall within the autism spectrum (ASD) usually have impaired verbal skills. They understand and assign fewer words to items and actions than their non-ASD peers and, even in early childhood, have a significantly smaller vocabulary. Many toddlers with ASD utter few words at all, making communication difficult between children and parents, teachers, and others. Numerous approaches have been designed to improve verbal skills in autistic children, including parental attentiveness. Since parents interact most with their children, it would make sense that a large part of what a child learns about language and verbal actions is learned from parents. Therefore, understanding what parents can do to help their ASD children learn and produce more words could improve communication and increase learning in other areas.
Eileen Haebig of the University of Wisconsin recently conducted a study in which she examined several types of parental communication to see which method had the biggest impact on vocabulary expansion in a group of ASD preschoolers. The children and parents were recorded during a play session in which the parent provided verbal responses, visual responses, and verbal explanations to the child. One year later, Haebig evaluated the children to see if their vocabulary had increased. She found that the parents who verbally communicated with their children using “follow-in” comments had children with the biggest verbal gains. Follow-ins are comments that are made to the children describing and acknowledging what the child is focusing on. Parents who communicated with their children about the fact that the child was watching the parent do something did not have the same positive impact.
Haebig believes that when children are focused on an action or object, and parents comment or describe that focus with words, it provides the children a map for assigning meaning to words. However, when parents merely acknowledge that a child is focused on their parents’ actions, rather than being physically engaged in those same actions, the verbal descriptions did not have the same effect on the children. In fact, the follow-in comments were the only methods of communication that increased vocabulary in the children in this sample. Haebig concluded by adding, “Children with ASD who have minimal linguistic skills may benefit from parent language input that follows into the child’s focus of attention.”
Haebig, Eileen, Andrea McDuffie, and Susan Ellis Weismer. (2013). The contribution of two categories of parent verbal responsiveness to later language for toddlers and preschoolers on the autism spectrum. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology 22.1: 57-70. Print.
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