Objectives: We investigated the comprehension of subject- and object-Wh-questions in 3-year-old children with autism. We then correlated their comprehension scores with maternal input measures from earlier visits.
Methods: At visit 1, the children had a mean age of 33 months, had begun intensive ABA therapy, and produced 27% of the words on the MacArthur CDI checklist. At Visit 3, they averaged 45 months and produced 45% of the words on the CDI. Mothers and children participated in 30-minute semi-structured play sessions at each visit. Maternal Wh-questions during the sessions were coded for various linguistic features. At visits 3-4, children watched a Wh-question video in an Intermodal Preferential Looking paradigm. This video showed ‘hitting' events (e.g., an apple hitting a flower), followed by test trials in which the apple and flower were shown on separate screens. Three types of Wh-questions were tested: Object questions (“What did the apple hit?”), Subject questions (“What hit the flower?”) and Where questions (“Where is the apple?”). Children's eye movements were recorded and coded off-line to assess comprehension.
Results: Approximately 11% of maternal utterances at these visits were Wh-questions; 60% of these included the copula as the main verb (e.g., “What's this? Where is the cookie?”). Many significant correlations were found between maternal input at visits 1 and 2 and later comprehension by their children; we report only the ones that were still robust once maternal MLU and child vocabulary were partialled out. Maternal speech forms that correlated negatively with later child Wh-question comprehension included Wh-questions with the copula as the main verb, and Wh-questions that repeatedly used the same few verbs (e.g., want, see, have). Maternal forms of speech that correlated positively with later child Wh-question comprehension included questions with inverted auxiliaries (e.g., “What did she eat?” rather than “What I'm going to do?”) and those with content-rich verbs (e.g., build, eat).
Conclusions: Wh-question acquisition in children with ASD appears to progress more slowly when their input consists more heavily of Wh-questions with the copular “be” than Wh-questions with a wide variety of content-rich verbs. Moreover, good examples of Wh-questions (e.g., with inverted auxiliaries) also seem beneficial. Thus, some kinds of input seem especially accessible to children with ASD for learning about Wh-questions.