Children with typical development learn words by following the gaze of the person who is using a new word (i.e., by using joint attention). However, they are also able to learn new words when another person is not present (i.e., by watching television; Scofield & Behrend, 2007). Joint attention impairments are some of the earliest symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and have been linked to future language delays (e.g., Mundy, Kasari, & Sigman, 1992; Sigman & Kasari, 1995). Because of impaired joint attention, children with ASD may need to rely on other learning strategies that do not require joint attention to learn new words (McDuffie, Yoder, & Stone, 2006).
The present study examined novel word learning in preschool-aged children with ASD. We compared word learning in a traditional joint attention paradigm with word learning in the absence of joint attention (i.e., words were presented via a computer instead of a social partner). It was hypothesized that preschoolers with ASD would show more word learning in the nonsocial condition.
Thus far, 12 preschoolers with typical development (TD) and 10 preschoolers with ASD have completed the study. In the social joint attention condition, the examiner placed a novel object between herself and the child and labeled the novel object 3 times (e.g., “ Look a zog, a zog, it’s a zog.”). The novel object was then removed for 2-3 seconds and then presented a second time alongside another novel object. The examiner asked the child to locate the labeled object (“Can you point to the zog. Where is the zog?”). The nonsocial task was identical except that the object and label were presented via computer with no help from a person. For both social and nonsocial conditions, control trials were administered in which the examiner or computer presented the object and merely commented on it without providing a label (i.e. “Look, Look”).
Across social and nonsocial tasks, children with ASD showed less language learning than children with TD, F(1,17) = 5.93, p = .03. Follow-up comparisons showed that children with ASD showed more language learning on the social than the nonsocial task, t(8)=3.6, p = .01). In the control trials, children with ASD were less likely to link a label (e.g., “koba”) with the object that the examiner had previously commented on (e.g., “Look, Look”), F(1,17) = 30.05, p < .001.
These results suggest that like children with TD, children with ASD do learn new words when interacting with a social partner. However, children with ASD were less likely to infer that a new word went with a novel object in the more ambiguous control condition. Contrary to expectations, children with ASD did not learn words better in the nonsocial computer condition than the social partner condition. Thus, language interventions that are nonsocial may not be as effective in children with ASD as has been previously hypothesized.