Communication growth in minimally verbal children with ASD: The importance of interaction

Charlotte DiStefano, Wendy Shih, Ann Kaiser, Rebecca Landa, Connie Kasari
Autism Research: Official Journal of the International Society for Autism Research 2016, 9 (10): 1093-1102
Little is known about language development in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) who remain minimally verbal past age 5. While there is evidence that children can develop language after age 5, we lack detailed information. Studies of this population generally focus on discrete language skills without addressing broader social-communication abilities. As communication and social deficits are both inherent to ASD, an examination of not only what language skills are acquired, but how those skills are used in interactions is relevant. Research in typical development has examined how communication interchanges (unbroken back-and-forth exchanges around a unified purpose) develop, which can be used as a framework for studying minimally verbal children. This study examined the interchange use by 55 children with ASD over the course of a 6-month play and engagement-based communication intervention. Half of the children received intervention sessions that also incorporated a speech-generating device (SGD). Interchanges were coded by: frequency, length, function, and initiator (child or adult). Results indicated that children initiated a large proportion of interchanges and this proportion increased over time. The average length and number of interchanges increased over time, with children in the SGD group showing even greater growth. Finally, children's total number of interchanges at baseline was positively associated with their spoken language gains over the course of intervention. This study supports the crucial relationship between social engagement and expressive language development, and highlights the need to include sustained communication interchanges as a target for intervention with this population. Autism Res 2016, 9: 1093-1102. © 2016 International Society for Autism Research, Wiley Periodicals, Inc.

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