Children with autism can use gaze to map new words


Children with autism are capable of learning new words the same way as a non-autistic children but will take longer, according to a new study

The researchers found that autistic children scored almost exactly the same as non-autistic children in tests of learning new words, and were able to follow their teachers’ eye movements 75 per cent of the time, compared to non-autistic children’s 78 per cent.

Children with autism frequently have difficulty making and maintaining eye contact with other people under certain conditions, so much so that teachers and therapists are taught to prompt the child to make and maintain eye contact with them.

‘A lot of good work has gone into targeting this skill in kids with autism,’ said Allison Bean Ellawadi, assistant professor of speech and hearing and director of the Autism & Child Language Learning Laboratory at The Ohio State University.

It’s considered a pivotal skill— looking at other people and monitoring eye movement. Our findings are really exciting, because they suggest that maybe we don’t need to directly target whether kids follow their partner’s gaze. We found that if we use eye gaze in a meaningful way, and in a consistent pattern, kids with autism will pick it up on their own, and they’ll learn new words.

Bean Ellawadi and study co-author Karla McGregor, professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Iowa, compared the learning skills of 15 children with autism to those of 15 non-autistic children. The children’s ages ranged from 18 months to 7 years old. The researchers placed a tray of toys and a bucket in front of each child. Then they looked at a particular toy—say, a stuffed duck—and asked the child to put that toy in the bucket.

A similar study was carried out in 2009 but then the child was given just one chance to complete the task satisfactorily. In the latest study the children were given five ‘warm-up’ trials followed by up to 20 more trials to get the task right.

When the child put the right toy in the bucket, the researchers praised him or her. When the child put the wrong toy in the bucket or just didn’t respond, the researchers didn’t give any negative feedback. They just pointed to the right toy or demonstrated the task for him or her, and asked again. Then they moved on to a new toy.

As in the 2009 study, non-autistic children out-performed the autistic children on the first trial. But by the end of the experiment, the autistic children had caught up. Both groups were able to choose the right toy more than half the time, with an overall performance of 50-60 per cent, depending on how many toys were on the tray.


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Special World, from Inclusive Technology, is a free website linking 125,000 special education teachers, speech therapists and occupational therapists in 150 countries. Special World readers and contributors work with children who have additional needs or special educational needs including those with severe, profound and multiple learning difficulties and disabilities.

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