Objectives: The aim of the present study was to compare the functional characteristics of maternal language directed to children with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Down syndrome and typical development of the same developmental age.
Methods: Participants were 60 mothers and their children with ASD (n =20), Down syndrome (n =20) or typical development (n =20). Children’s mean developmental age was 24.77 months (SD = 14.45) and did not significantly differ across groups. The diagnosis of ASD was confirmed based on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS - Lord, Rutter, DiLavore, &. Risi, 1998). The Bayley Scales of Infant and Toddler Development (2nd ed., Bayley, 1993) was used to determine child developmental age. The mothers’ child directed speech was studied through 10-min observation of joint play interactions. Word-for-word transcripts were made of maternal language using the CHAT system (MacWhinney, 2000). Maternal speech was categorized in terms of the primary function of each utterance, using a coding scheme validated in previous studies of maternal speech that highlighted its appropriateness across cultures (Venuti er al, 1997; Rossi et al., 1998; Bornstein et al., 1992)
Results: Both mothers of children with ASD and Down syndrome used more directives and less questions compared to mothers of typically developing children. Moreover, these mothers named their children more often than mothers of typically developing children. Also, mothers of children with ASD referred more often to themselves than the mothers in the other groups. Finally, mothers of children with Down syndrome used more affective-salient language compared to mothers with ASD and typical development.
Conclusions: Verbal interactions between parents and children with ASD and Down syndrome, show some non-optimal features that might profitably be targeted for early intervention with foci not only on specific child skills but also on parent-child language interaction; such programs may help the parents recognize effective ways of speaking with their children which in turn might facilitate their language acquisition (Venuti, 2007).