Correlational studies suggest that verbal input from responsive parents can make a positive contribution to language development for young children with ASD (Siller & Sigman, 2002; McDuffie & Yoder, in press). These types of parent utterances follow into the child’s current focus of attention and are contingent upon what the child is looking at, touching, or playing with just prior to the parent’s verbal response. Early language learning requires that children make a mapping between the verbal language that they hear and the objects and events to which this language refers. This process often is challenging for young children with ASD who may find it difficult to respond to attention-directing cues from conversational partners. Teaching parents to talk about their child’s current focus of attention should increase the efficiency with which young children with ASD learn language.
To examine whether participation in a clinician-implemented parent education program: a) increased the frequency with which parents used verbal utterances that described the child’s focus of attention; and, b) decreased the frequency with which parents redirected their child’s focus of attention.
Child participants (N=14) ranged in age from 28- to 68-months (M = 41.14 mos, SD = 10.39) and had a community diagnosis of an ASD. Diagnoses were confirmed through administration of the MCHAT (M = 9.14, Range 3-17) and ADOS (M = 20.6, Range 11-28). Parent-child dyads were randomly assigned to a treatment or delayed treatment group. The intervention lasted eight weeks and consisted of five 2-hour parent education sessions, twice weekly 1-hour small group parent-child play sessions (14 total), and two 45-minute individual parent-child coaching sessions. The content of the parent sessions was adapted from More Than Words – The Hanen Program for Parents of Children with ASD (Sussman, Honeyman, & Lowry, 2007) and was implemented by a Hanen certified speech-language pathologist. Small-group parent-child sessions were implemented by graduate student clinicians enrolled in a masters program in Communication Disorders. Individual coaching sessions were implemented by the Hanen certified SLP. During group and individual parent-child play sessions, parents were coached in using the strategies presented during the parent education sessions Parent-child dyads participated in an unstructured play session with a standard toy set at the pre- and post-treatment periods and an interval-based coding system was used to derive the variables of interest.
Parents in the treatment group significantly increased their use of utterances that followed into and described their child’s focus of attention during play, t(6)=2.56, p<.02, one-tailed, and significantly decreased their use of utterances that redirected their child’s focus of attention, t(6) = 2.15, p<.04, one-tailed). These parent behaviors did not change in the comparison group. Treatment-group parents rated the overall value of the program at 6.89 on a 7-point Likert scale.
Results of this pilot study suggest that an intervention comprised of parent education sessions in conjunction with small group and individual parent-child coaching sessions can successfully modify the ways in which parents provide verbal language input to their young children with ASD.