Responsiveness to Children's Gestures Facilitates Word-Learning in Children with Autism
Objectives: Here we ask whether this pattern of findings holds true for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), who show difficulties in early gesture production. One possibility is that parents of children with ASD will be as likely as parents of TD children to rely on their children’s gestures and thereby provide verbal labels that match their child’s own gesture production. Another possibility is that parents of children with ASD might be less likely to rely on children’s gestures given early deficits that children with ASD show in gesture production.
Methods: To test these possibilities, we observed 23 children with ASD, from 30- to 42-months of age, as they interacted with their mothers for 20 minutes in a semi-naturalistic laboratory setting. We assessed children’s gestures conveying unique information not found in the accompanying speech and we compiled children’s gesture vocabulary, i.e. a list of objects children referred to only in gesture. We then examined whether parents translated those referents into words. Additionally, we assessed children’s subsequent productive vocabulary during the observation sessions at 33, 36, 39, and 42 months of age for the referents children indicated uniquely in gesture at 30 months.
Results: Preliminary analyses of a subset of our sample reveal that, when children used gesture, they frequently conveyed unique information not found in the accompanying speech (78% of the gestures produced by TD children and 73% of the gesture production by children with ASD). For both groups, mothers translated approximately 50% of the referents conveyed uniquely in gesture, providing their children with labels for the objects. Importantly, 41% and 64% of the referents that the mothers translated into speech entered the spoken vocabulary of TD children and children with ASD, respectively.
Conclusions: These results show that parents of children with ASD are as responsive to their children’s gestures as parents of TD children in providing contingent spoken language input for children’s subsequent vocabulary development. Children with ASD, in turn, benefit from this targeted input, acquiring words that their parents translated at an earlier age. Overall, our results extend to children with developmental disorders the important role that children’s gestures play in language development—largely through its effects on parental responsiveness to these gestures.