Project Summary

As babbling babies grow into talking toddlers, they face an enormous challenge: making sense of the world around them, including the words they hear and the objects they see. 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) face challenges as they learn about their environment. These children are the focus of the Little Listeners Project.

The Little Listeners Project is pursuing a new avenue of research which focuses on how children with ASD use prediction skills while processing auditory and visual information in their environment in order to track patterns and learn from that information. The studies conducted in this project will help to determine if children with ASD track or utilize these patterns differently than other children. This project will measure children’s gaze behavior as they view short videos to tap into their thinking in order to answer questions such as:

    • Do toddlers with ASD respond to patterns differently than typically developing (TD) children?
    • Do toddlers with ASD make predictions about what’s coming next differently than typically developing (TD) children?
    • How are potential differences in prediction abilities related to language abilities?

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 similarities and differences in their learning behaviors in development. 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 abilities often gives us an idea of what their skills will be like later in life. Ultimately, the goal of our research is to provide insight for the development of targeted interventions that will support children with ASD as they face the challenge of learning language.

During the past 5 years, the Little Listeners team focused our efforts on understanding how children with ASD process language. This project utilized eye-tracking tools to monitor children’s eye movements while they look at pictures and listen to spoken words to answer important questions such as:

    • 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”)?