As babbling babies grow into talking toddlers, they face an enormous challenge: learning to understand and speak their native language. Many children are able to tackle this problem quite easily and become successful communicators within the first few years of life. However, other children—including young children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)—have a much more difficult time learning language. These children are the focus of the Little Listeners Project.
Language and communication delays are one of the hallmarks and earliest signs of ASD. Although a great deal of research has focused on overall language abilities in children with ASD, we know very little about how these children understand language in real time, as they are hearing it—something we refer to as language processing. Understanding how children with ASD comprehend language in real time is important because this is a skill they use all the time in their daily lives.
The goal of the Little Listeners Project is to understand how language processing in young children with ASD differs from language processing in children without ASD. To address this goal, we use a tool called eyetracking that allows us to monitor children’s eye movements while they look at pictures and listen to spoken words. This is a powerful method because it measures children’s language comprehension implicitly, without asking them to push a button or answer a question verbally.
The Little Listeners Project is designed to answer several specific questions, including:
- How do children react when they hear a word they know (like “ball”), but that word is mispronounced (like “vall”)? Do they treat it as a mispronunciation or as a completely new word?
- What do children do when they hear a word (like “hat”) that does not match any of the pictures they see? Are they more likely to look to a related word (like “boot”) than an unrelated word (like “dog”)?
- Can children use information in a verb (like “drink”) to anticipate an upcoming noun (like “milk”)?
Our study includes two groups of kids: children with ASD and typically developing children who do not have a diagnosis of ASD. Understanding the skills of both groups will help us identify differences in language processing. Participating families will also be invited to come back to the lab one year after their first visit to help us track how children have changed. Knowing about children’s early language abilities often gives us an idea of what their language will be like later in life, and this study will allow us to see if this is true for language processing skills as well.
Overall, this research will be useful for tracking developmental changes as children grow older and use more complex language, and ultimately, it will provide insight for targeted interventions that will support children with ASD as they face the challenge of learning language.