International Meeting for Autism Research (London, May 15-17, 2008): Grammatical strengths in the language of young children with autism

Grammatical strengths in the language of young children with autism

Saturday, May 17, 2008
Champagne Terrace/Bordeaux (Novotel London West)
L. Naigles , Psychology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT
S. Tek , Psychology, University of Connecticut
G. Jaffery , Psychology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT
D. Fein , Psychoogy, University of Connecticut
Background: Research on the grammatical abilities of children with autism has revealed early and later strengths in clausal syntax in, for example, understanding SVO word order and linking verb frames and verb meanings.  Fewer studies have investigated the processes by which ASD children acquire clausal syntax, or tried to link specific early and later grammatical abilities in the same children. 
Objectives:   We compare 10 ASD children’s syntactic comprehension across time, using intermodal preferential looking.  Understanding of SVO word order (WO) was assessed at Visit 1 and use of syntactic frames (SF) to learn verbs was assessed at Visit 4.
Methods: At Visit 1, children’s mean age = 33 months, mean vocabulary = 23% of MB-CDI; at Visit 4, their mean age = 45.3 months, mean vocabulary = 34% of MB-CDI. For the WO test, children saw side-by-side static pictures of reversible events (boy pushes girl, girl pushes boy) and had to identify the correct picture to match a sentence. For the SF test, children were taught novel verbs in the transitive frame (“The duck is gorping the bunny.”) while viewing a duck and a bunny engaged in simultaneous novel causal and noncausal actions.  During the test trials (“Find gorping!”), the causal and non-causal actions were shown side-by-side.  Children’s eye movements were coded off-line.
Results: On WO, children scored 66.7% correct (p < .05).  For SF, children mapped the novel verb onto the causal action (54.6%, p < .05).  Performance on the two tasks was highly correlated (r = .718, p < .05).
Conclusions: These children with autism were able to use frame-based syntax to learn the meanings of novel verbs; this ability correlated with their earlier understanding of SVO word order.  These findings demonstrate how earlier and later aspects of syntax are related in ASD children’s grammatical development.
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