Peer Versus Teacher Talk in Early Intervention Classrooms: Case Studies Suggest That Inclusion Might be Different

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
E. F. Ferguson1, A. S. Nahmias2, L. Bateman1, K. J. Payton1, D. S. Mandell3, R. T. Schultz4 and J. Parish-Morris1,5, (1)Center for Autism Research, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, (2)University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, (3)University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, Philadelphia, PA, (4)The Center for Autism Research, The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, (5)Suite 860, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA
Background: Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may benefit from being placed in classrooms with their typically developing peers. For example, children who do not floor on language measures in preschool demonstrate steeper rates of cognitive growth in inclusion classrooms than in mixed-disability or autism-specific classrooms (Nahmias et al., 2014). It may be that neurotypical children talk more than children with disabilities, and model and interact with verbal children with ASD to their benefit. Teacher talk may also help; teachers in inclusion classrooms may direct more talk to children with ASD than teachers in autism-only or mixed-disability classrooms. We explore these questions by assessing the language environments of children with ASD in three different classroom types.

Objectives: Measure speech produced by and directed at preschoolers with ASD in three classroom types (inclusion, mixed disabilities, autism-only); measure the association between natural language and standardized assessments.

Methods: Samples have been collected from 25 children; these results concern the first 5 (all others will be transcribed and included before May 2016). Average age was 3.8 years (range=3.7-4.4), Mullen Scales of Early Learning (MSEL) Early Learning Composite scores ranged from very low to below average (mean=60.8, range=49-83), and autism-related symptoms on the ADOS ranged from moderate to high. Participants wore digital language recorders during a normal school day. We transcribed words produced by participants during ~20 minutes of circle time and ~20 minutes of free play (Total Mean=39.2 minutes, SD=2.6, range: 35-42) and language directed toward participants by peers and teachers. Nonparametric correlation analyses assessed associations between natural language production and standardized language tests. Words per minute (WPM) are described in a case-study style for inclusion and autism-only classrooms (N=1 each) and at the mean level for mixed disability classrooms (N=3).

Results: Participants’ WPM correlated with expressive language scores, Spearman=.87, p=.05, and teachers’ WPM toward participants was positively associated with participants’ receptive language scores, Spearman=.89, p=.04. Peers talked more with participants who produced more words themselves, Spearman=.90, p=.04. More peer talk was directed toward participants in the inclusion classroom (8.3 WPM), than in the autism-only classroom (4.1 WPM). The inclusion classroom had the lowest rate of teacher talk directed toward participants (29.8 WPM), while teacher talk in the mixed disability classroom (48.4 WPM) was similar to the autism-only classroom (51.0 WPM).

Conclusions: Short language samples from children with ASD in preschool classrooms correlate significantly with standardized language measures, suggesting that they assess the same underlying construct. Interestingly, the inclusion classroom had both the highest rate of peer talk and the lowest rate of teacher talk directed toward participants. This preliminary finding suggests that inclusion classrooms may feature increased opportunity for peer interaction and modeling, which could benefit some children. Other children with ASD may benefit from higher rates of teacher talk found in the mixed disability and autism-only environments. Future analyses with a much larger sample will include longitudinal moderation analyses to assess the differential effects of classroom language environment on cognitive and social growth over 9 months in children of varying language profiles.