Objectives: This study was designed to examine the type, function, and complexity of language gains in young children with ASD following an early intervention program consisting of PECS and PRT.
Methods: Thirty-eight children diagnosed with ASD (aged 20-45 months) were randomly assigned to one of two treatment conditions (PECS or PRT). All children had fewer than 10 functional words at intake. All children received 258 hours of intervention across approximately 6 months. A 25-minute Structured Laboratory Observation (SLO) was administered at pre-and post-treatment, consisting of a semi-structured play session where the primary caregiver tried to elicit different child behaviors, one of which was language. Trained undergraduate research assistants blind to the study purpose coded the SLOs for child language behaviors. The Type (spontaneous, cued, or imitated), Function (request, comment, question/answer, or other), and Complexity (vocalization, one-word, or word combination) of language used by the children at pre- and post-treatment were coded.
Results: To date, fourteen children have been coded for preliminary analyses. Paired-sample t-tests were utilized to examine change from pre- to post- treatment for all language behaviors. All Types of Language significantly increased from pre- to post-treatment: spontaneous (pre M = 0.86, post M = 10.00; t = -2.34, p = 0.04), cued (pre M = 17.71, post M = 37.57; t = -3.20, p = 0.01), and imitated (pre M = 0.79, post M = 12.36; t = -3.79, p = 0.00). Regarding Function of Language used: requesting significantly increased from pre- to post-treatment (pre M = 16.07, post M = 45.79; t = -5.05, p = 0.00). Commenting, question/answer, and other increased from pre- to post-treatment but these changes were not significant. All Complexities of Language significantly increased from pre- to post-treatment: vocalizations (pre M = 18.64, post M = 34.57; t = -2.43, p = 0.03), one-words (pre M = 0.79, post M = 19.50; t = -2.55, p = 0.02), and word combinations (pre M = 0.07, post M = 5.71; t = -2.24, p = 0.04).
Conclusions: Early intervention programs targeting communication are helpful at increasing spontaneous, cued, and imitated language skills in children with risk for autism. In addition, children can be expected to increase the complexity of their language use. However, the communication skills the children gained were primarily used to request items or activities rather than to share information through commenting or responding to questions. This highlights the need to focus on social aspect of language development in early intervention. In addition, language gains varied greatly among participants. Heterogeneity in language gains will be discussed and recommendations to address language skills that did not change will be provided.