Attentional Cues to Support Word Learning Among Children with ASD and Typically Developing Children

Friday, May 15, 2015: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Imperial Ballroom (Grand America Hotel)
E. Tenenbaum, D. Amso and S. J. Sheinkopf, Brown University, Providence, RI
Background:  Orienting attention to a speaker’s mouth predicts successful word learning and higher language ability among children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and typically developing children (Tenenbaum, Amso, Abar, & Sheinkopf, 2014; Young, Merin, Rogers, & Ozonoff, 2009).

Objectives:  To test whether word learning can be facilitated by drawing attention to the mouth of a speaker by pointing (Experiment 1) or holding the object close to the mouth (Experiment 2).

Methods:  Experiment 1: Participants were children with ASD (n = 19, 14 male, M = 47.67 months, SD = 12.73) and language matched typically developing (TD) children (n = 17, 12 male, M = 20.29 months, SD = 6.89). Trials included baseline in which two objects appeared on the screen, familiarization in which the speaker provided a label for the target (e.g. “Look at the dax!”), and test in which the two objects reappeared after the instructions, “Look at the dax!” Participants saw 6 trials. On half the trials, the speaker pointed to her mouth while labeling the object. Experiment 2: Children with ASD (n = 6, 5 male, 1 female, M = 67.32 months, SD = 11.76) and language matched TD children (n = 7, 5 male, 2 female, M = 33.00 months, SD = 8.79) saw two trial types. On Far Trials, the speaker held the object as she had in Experiment 1, off to the side. On Near Trials, the speaker held the object close to her mouth. 

Results:  Results did not differ between groups, so we collapsed across groups for the following analyses. In Experiment 1, pointing to the speaker’s mouth hindered word learning among children with ASD and typically developing children. Difference scores between proportion of time spent fixating the target at test and baseline were lower in the pointing than no-pointing condition (Point: M =- .03, SD = .19; No Point: M = .06, SD = .24; t(33) = 1.93, p = .06). In Experiment 2, holding the object close to the speaker’s mouth facilitated word learning. On Far Trials, attention to the target did not increase from baseline to test (M = .01, SD = .12, one sample t-test for difference scores > 0, t(11) = .01, ns). For Near Trials, there was an increase (Difference Score Near: M = .17, SD = .31, t(12) = 1.99, p = .07).

Conclusions:  Manipulating social cues during object labeling had either detrimental (pointing to the speaker’s mouth) or facilitative (holding the target object near the mouth) effects on novel word learning. These findings have implications for refining language therapies for infants and children with emerging speech.