Autism (ASD) first manifests in early childhood and is identified through developmental markers. Children who develop ASD all have different outcomes, with some exhibiting mild ASD symptoms and others experiencing significant impairments to social, verbal, cognitive, and communication abilities.
Early identification of ASD is critical, as language and communication skills are acquired in the first few years of life. Children who are diagnosed with ASD early can receive interventions and treatment that could improve their language and communication skills. This early treatment can serve to improve well-being and overall functioning throughout an individual’s life.
One way to determine course trajectory of ASD is to assess language acquisition and word processing as a predictor of later impairment. Therefore, Patricia K. Kuhl of the Institute for Learning & Brain Sciences at the University of Washington in Washington State evaluated the word processing abilities of 24 children with ASD when they were 2 years old. She then assessed them again when they were 4 and 6 years old. At the follow-ups, the children were evaluated for language ability, cognitive functioning, behavior and communication.
Kuhl found that the children with more severe social impairments had lower word processing skills at age 2 when compared to control subjects. When she looked at the children several years later, Kuhl discovered that lower language acquisition and larger social impairments were predictive of behavior, communication and social challenges at age 4 and 6. This is an important finding as it demonstrates that social impairments influence language skills at an early age and are predictive of future cognitive deficits for children with ASD.
The finding that language acquisition is impaired in children with ASD at age 2 is in line with word processing trajectories in general. In fact, experts agree that vocabulary expansion occurs most rapidly during this time. Barriers to vocabulary acquisition and expansion at this age can have long-lasting effects and appear to be strong indicators of future communication problems. Kuhl added, “To the extent that aspects of language learning are time sensitive, early diagnosis of ASD is vitally important, allowing treatment interventions as early in development as possible.”
Kuhl, P.K., Coffey-Corina, S., Padden, D., Munson, J., Estes, A., et al. (2013). Brain responses to words in 2-year-olds with autism predict developmental outcomes at age 6. PLoS ONE 8(5): e64967. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0064967
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