We currently have several projects exploring language development and processing in children with and without autism. A brief description of each project follows. If you’d like more information or are interested in participating in any of our language projects, please contact us. If you’d like to participate but your child falls outside the age ranges listed below, please get in touch as we always have new studies beginning and we will contact you when we have something appropriate for your child.
Eye-Tracking Studies of Language
These studies explore how children process language, using a “Looking While Listening” paradigm, in which children observe pictures on a screen while listening to sentences played over speakers. We use a Tobii eye-tracker, which has the advantage of being built into a computer screen, allowing us to collect information about a child’s eye movements without any special equipment on the child himself. By tracking the children’s eye movements while they listen to the sentences, we can gain important information about:
- Which words children know: This is especially important for infants, nonverbal children, and other children who have difficulty with standardized testing procedures.
- How children process language: By looking at the eye movements while the child listens to the sentence, we are able to learn about how children anticipate the end of a sentence, as well as errors children might make in interpretation before they have all of the information about the sentence.
- How children with autism process language differently from typically-developing children: Eye-tracking methodology is particularly well-suited to studying language in children with autism and for comparing them with their typically-developing peers.
“Both of my children enjoyed themselves so much, they’ve already asked when they can come again!”
– Parent of Study Participants
For children (age 5-17) and young adults (age 18-21) with no or limited verbal ability:
These studies use new ways of assessing what children understand and how they integrate what they hear with what they see. Currently, we are exploring how children with autism spectrum disorders who have very limited verbal skills process language. Our broader goals are to develop novel methods of assessing children’s receptive language skills that don’t rely on traditional measures (such as pointing), and innovative intervention techniques that are especially suited to enhancing language comprehension in older children with ASD.
The study involves several experiments at the computer, during which he or she will look at pictures and hear sentences played out of speakers. They will be asked to watch the computer screen and through a completely non-invasive eye-tracking system, we measure where they look as a way of interpreting how they understand the sentences. We will also collect event related brain potentials (ERPs) via a non invasive method for looking at brain activity by placing a net on your child’s head. Pictures, phrases and sentences will be presented to your child and their brain activity will be recorded as he/she watches/listens to the video. Additionally, short standardized tests for language and general cognitive ability will be administered, as well as a play-based assessment for autism symptoms. Breaks and reinforcers will be included as needed. To hear more about the study, please contact Daniela Plesa-Skwerer
For English speaking children aged 6-13 with or without an autism spectrum disorder and/or language difficulty:
Was your child a late talker?
Does your child have difficulty expressing him/herself?
Do you wonder about your child’s language skills?
This collaborative study between Boston University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (M.I.T.) looks at language, reading and cognitive abilities during childhood. How your child performs on standardized and experimental tests of language, reading and cognitive processing will be assessed and your child will play fun computer games while we examine how your child’s brain responds to language using MRI. MRI is a large magnet that records brain activity. MRI is absolutely safe for children, and can be a fun learning experience for children and their families! Your child will have fun playing games and watching cartoons, and will be given pictures of his or her own brain, a gift certificate to a local bookstore, several small prizes, and the merits of being a “young scientist”! You can also receive a report of your child’s performance on language measures.
It is our hope to advance scientific understanding of the typical and atypical development of language and reading. It is our goal to help parents, clinicians and educators in their diagnostic and remediation efforts with children with language and reading difficulties. To learn more about the study contact us
For children (aged 4-12) with or without a diagnosed Autism Spectrum Disorder, with bilateral deafness and at least one deaf parent:
The goal of this study is to investigate the effects of core social deficits in autism spectrum disorders (ASD) on the sign language development of deaf children. Several of the core social skills known to be impaired in autism are crucial for learning a sign language such as American Sign Language (ASL). These skills include the ability to engage in episodes of joint attention, interpret facial expressions, understand the differing visual perspectives of others and replicate the body movements and stances of others. This study aims to investigate the effects of autism on sign language acquisition in order to help better our understanding as to how autism impacts cognition in both deaf and hearing children. Research is always minimal risk, non-invasive and entails normal educational testing methods. To learn more about the study please contact Aaron Shield
Natural Language Sample Analysis:
This project is a continuation of an older study, the Child and Family Project, which followed a cohort of children with autism spectrum disorders across the toddler years (approx. 2-5). While the Child and Family Project is now closed to participants, we are continuing to analyze the wealth of data we collected. In the Natural Language Sample study, we are transcribing the audio from portions of these visits so we can assess how expressive language develops in toddlers with ASD. Projects using this database include explorations of topics such as echolalia, pragmatic language use, and pronoun acquisition.