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Tracking cues to word learning in autism

United Kingdom

Delays and difficulties learning new words are characteristic of autism, yet the reasons for this are unclear. Typical children learn new words very quickly from the surrounding language context, for instance when watching a television program or reading a book. The proposed project will investigate whether children with autism are sensitive to these contextual cues and whether they use them to learn new words when reading or listening. Using an eye-tracking paradigm, this group at Oxford University will investigate what children choose to look at as they hear (or read) language. Eye-tracking is a naturalistic way of measuring how children attend to different stimuli (words and pictures) when learning new words. Both when and where the individual looks when reading different sentences presented together with different images will be examined. In addition to studying how children affected and not affected with autism attend to different stimuli in the environment while learning a new word, a variety of behavioral tests that assess a wide range of language and literacy processes will be administered. This will reveal individual differences within the population and help understand why some children are not as efficient at processing contextual cues to learn new words. As well as identifying the nature of word learning from linguistic context in children with autism, this study will reveal which cues they find helpful. Significance: By examining the way children with autism understand the meaning of different words, this research will help predict individual differences in word learning. This may help identify "sub-groups" of children with autism spectrum disorder. In addition, by identifying alternative mechanisms for the way children with autism learn language, a foundation for future intervention studies which focus on teaching children to use contextual cues to improve language comprehension will be established.