Language Development In Children With Autism

Funded by the National Alliance for Autism Research (NAAR) and the National Institutes of Health–Deafness and Communication Disorders

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by difficulties with social interaction, delay in language development, and repetitive behaviors.

We are engaged in a number of projects that all concern language development and use in children with ASD.

Early Language Project (Naigles PI, collaboration with Deborah Fein)

We have visited a group of children 6 times over the course of 2 years, assessing their language via comprehension, production, and standardized tests. We then carry out a ‘follow-up’ visit, 2 years later.

→ Intermodal preferential looking works with children with ASD!


→ They have demonstrated “comprehension before production”, showing that they are processing language ‘off-line’, with SVO word order, with wh-questions, and with tense/aspect markers.


→ They can use some lexical strategies and principles (noun bias, syntactic bootstrapping) to figure out what words mean, but have yet to demonstrate a shape bias


→ They are able to extract regularities and patterns in speech directed to them, outside of therapy:


→ More detailed analyses are revealing that the children in our sample are very heterogeneous, as far as language goes. Some children have acquired language at rates close to that of typical children while other children have progressed more slowly/demonstrated more struggles:


Speechome Project (in collaboration with Matthew Goodwin, NEU)

Children don’t always talk just when we want them to! What if we could record ‘everything’ they say, via a ‘Speechome Recorder’ installed in homes (with many privacy safeguards of course)?


Optimal Outcome project (Deborah Fein, PI, in collaboration with Elizabeth Kelley, Queens’ University, Inge-Marie Eigsti, Marianne Barton, Bob Schultz)

Participants here are children who were diagnosed with autism in toddlerhood and experienced intensive therapy for several years. They have achieved an optimal outcome and have been tested at age seven, at age 11, and several times during adolescence and early adulthood. They show robust strengths in standardized test performance and complex syntax but still some weaknesses in detailed lexical organization (extending properties within categories) and in pragmatics (narratives, theory of mind).


The Language of Children in the Autism Phenome Project (collaboration with colleagues at the MIND Institute and Ann Mastergeorge, Texas Tech University)

The Autism Phenome Project has collected an enormous amount of behavioral, neurological, genetic, and epidemiological data from a large sample of children diagnosed with ASD. Our team is working on characterizing their language in detail, including exploring possible subgroups of language functioning and language-brain relationships.

This project has also been funded by UCONN’s Language Plasticity IGERT.


Language in Children with ASD during varying cognitive loads—the Virtual Reality Project (collaboration with Peter Mundy and colleagues at the MIND Institute)

What happens to the language of high-functioning children with ASD when they are engaged in a virtual reality task? They pretend they are talking to a classroom of their peers, and across 6 minutes the task increases in cognitive load. Our team is analyzing the children’s speech on at the lexical, grammatical, and pragmatic levels.
MIND Institute

This project has also been funded by UCONN’s Language Plasticity IGERT