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For Young Children with Autism, Directing Attention Boosts Language

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NIH-supported study confirms that pointing, gestures to focus attention improve later language

Thursday, June 21, 2012

An intervention in which adults actively engaged the attention of preschool children with autism by pointing to toys and using other gestures to focus their attention results in a long term increase in language skills, according to researchers supported by the National Institutes of Health.

At age 8, children with autism who received therapy centered on sharing attention and play when they were 3 or 4 years old had stronger vocabularies and more advanced language skills than did children who received standard therapy. All of the children in the study attended preschool for 30 hours each week.

“Some studies have indicated that such pre-verbal interactions provide the foundation for building later language skills,” said Alice Kau, Ph.D., of the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Branch of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD), the NIH institute that supported the study. “This study confirms that intensive therapy to engage the attention of young children with autism helps them acquire language faster and build lasting language skills.”

First author Connie Kasari, Ph.D., of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), conducted the research with colleagues Amanda Gulsrud, Ph.D., Stephanny Freeman, Ph.D., Tanya Paparella, Ph.D., and Gerhard Hellemann, Ph.D.

UCLA is one of 11 institutions that receive support from the NIH through the Autism Centers of Excellence Program.

The study findings appear in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.

The 40 children who participated in the study were 8 and 9 years old. Five years earlier, they had been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder and received the intensive therapy program or standard intervention, as part of a separate study.

The researchers assessed the children’s vocabulary, language, and other cognitive skills. They then compared the results of these assessments to those taken when the children were 3 and 4 years old. The earlier and later assessments also included measures of the child’s ability to initiate interactions with adults, the variety of the child’s play, and the quality of interactions with a parent.

The researchers found that children who started the attention-focusing therapy earlier had more advanced linguistic skills at age 8. Those who learned to point or direct an adult’s attention to an object of interest at age 3 and 4 also developed more advanced language skills when they were 8. And children who showed greater flexibility in playing with objects at age 3 or 4 demonstrated better memory and other cognitive skills at age 8.

“Our findings show that therapy focused on such basic skills as pointing, sharing, and engaging in play can have considerable long-term effects as children with autism spectrum disorders grow and learn to express themselves with words,” said Dr. Kasari.

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About the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD)

The NICHD sponsors research on development, before and after birth; maternal, child, and family health; reproductive biology and population issues; and medical rehabilitation. For more information, visit the Institute’s website at http://www.nichd.nih.gov/.  

About the National Institutes of Health (NIH)

NIH, the nation's medical research agency, includes 27 Institutes and Centers and is a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. NIH is the primary federal agency conducting and supporting basic, clinical, and translational medical research, and is investigating the causes, treatments, and cures for both common and rare diseases. For more information about NIH and its programs, visit http://www.nih.gov.

Last Updated Date: 06/21/2012
Last Reviewed Date: 06/21/2012

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