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Attention & Word Learning in Children with ASD- Translating Experimental Findings into Intervention

State/Province Full: 
Rhode Island
United States

Social interactions are wrought with word learning cues. To connect a label to its referent, one must integrate cues from a speaker’s expression, mouth shape, speech stream and attentional focus. Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show marked differences in their scanning of social scenes. These differences may cause them to miss valuable word learning cues. In support of this possibility, children with ASD tend to have significant language impairments. In a preliminary investigation of attention and word learning, the researchers used eye tracking to study how verbal and nonverbal autistic children look at word-learning scenes. Children watched videos of a woman labeling one of two objects in front of her (“Look it’s a dax!”). The child’s pattern of fixation during this familiarization was then used to predict their ability to recognize the correct target at test (“Look at the dax.”). Thus far, the research team has identified a correlation between attention to the mouth during familiarization and the ability to identify the target at test. This important result holds promise for interventions targeting word learning in ASD. The research aims to translate these basic results into a procedure that will serve as the basis for such an intervention. The study is in two phases. First, they aim to extend the exploration of the mechanisms underlying attention and word learning in ASD with two experiments. Experiment 1 will address the impact of cue salience. Does attention to the mouth predict successful word learning when the speaker manipulates the object, points at the object and when she simply gazes at the object? Experiment 2 will explore the importance of bimodal information for word learning. The speaker will ask children to “Look at the dax” while the researchers show either a video of her saying this or an abstract image. This will address whether a direct visual match facilitates word learning. In the second phase, they will use data from Phase 1 to intervene on children’s word learning. This will allow the determination of whether the team’s basic results have the potential to facilitate word learning. With mentorship from a leading clinician and autism researcher, and an expert in experimental investigations of visual attention, this fellow would allow for translation of the fellow’s skills in experimental research to applied work that will address one of the most crippling symptoms in ASD: failure to develop language.