Exploring Language Development in Neurotypical and Autistic Children

Jan 14, 2020

Language is a fundamental tool many individuals learn at a very young age. Language is used for communicating needs, expressing desires, and establishing societies and interpersonal connection. Michael Bordieri, Murray State professor of psychology, visits Sounds Good to discuss the language development process in both neurotypical children and children on the autism spectrum disorder.

"We know that language is an essential feature of human behavior," Bordieri begins. It unblocks all sorts of avenues for opportunity, and it's a core aspect of making sure our basic needs are met. Language largely evolves organically. We don't go out of our way to teach children our learning because we're in immensely language-rich environments."

"There have been some psychologists who have done studies looking at children who have heard millions of words by the time they reach three-years-old. Children are growing up in environments where language is all around them. We can think of children as sort of soaking up language like a sponge," Bordieri explains. "They're hearing it used in all these natural environments, and through that, they then develop the ability to use language themselves, starting with receptive vocabulary." 

Receptive vocabulary is defined as "words that a person can comprehend and respond to, even if the person cannot produce those words." "Kids understand language before they can speak it," Bordieri says. "Typically developing children will actually show understanding of common words in language before they can develop the muscle control and other things needed to speak. But eventually, [their vocabularies start] exploding with language both in terms of receptive and expressive vocabulary." (Words that people can both understand and produce)

"How do you study that? Of course, you can't ask them," Bordieri continues. "Through some different tasks and looking at attention and infant movements, developmental psychologists have been able to parse that out. This receptive growth of language occurs earlier in the language development trajectory than in expressive vocabulary. Typically, when we think about children developing language, the key is just to immerse them in language. To have reading - that's why bedtime stories can be so important. To talk to your children often and have them surrounded by words in their life. For most children, those sort of environments are the right conditions to have language emerge on its own without much intentional training. However, for children with autism spectrum disorders, often that environment isn't enough to give them the skills and space they need to develop the language."

"We now know that 1 in 59 children born in the United States will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. As that number continues to rise, it's important to think about and look at how psychological science can help children with autism learn this crucial skill for their development," Bordieri explains. "Autism is a neurodevelopment disorder, which means the children's brains are developing differently. Recent research suggests we see these differences in development as early as two or three months after birth. Very young infants are looking at the world and attending to the world differently when they have autism compared to neurodevelopmental peers who are typically developing."

"One big thing we see is children with autism are attending less to social cues," Bordieri continues. "They're not necessarily tacking faces...they're not attending [to] that natural language that's all around us. While we said our typically developing children are soaking it all in like a sponge, children with autism are in these environments, but they're paying attention in a different way. They're looking at different things. They're not recognizing language and social expression the same way as other children."

Because of this difference in how children with autism spectrum disorders learn from and attend to their environment, it is important to adopt new ways of presenting not only the entire environment but language specifically. "The key has been using an applied technique called applied behavior analysis, which is based in behavioral psychology, to design environments that are more structured," Bordieri says. "To help kids pick up language when they maybe don't pick it up on their own."

While 'structured' can give the connotation of an environment being 'controlled,' Bordieri says that "controlled might be a little bit of a strong word. We would say the environment is being shaped in a way that really encourages language. Most of the time, kids learn language by labeling lots of things in the world. That's a doggy, that's a house, that's a red car. We use language receptively when we're looking at labeling things in the world. The problem is, for many kids with autism spectrum disorders, labeling isn't that reinforcing."

"The social praise you get when you [correctly label something] maybe doesn't capture their attention and create motivation in the same way as it does for typically developing children," Bordieri explains. "One thing behavior analysts do differently is they start by not labeling different things in the world, but instead, [teaching] children with autism to use language as a tool to get them what they want [and] their needs met."

Bordieri uses an example of a child with a cookie. "If you hold a cookie near a child and you say, 'what do you want,' or you look at them, they might want the cookie. Notice that's different than just labeling what that was, because if the child says the word 'cookie,' they get a cookie. Behavior analysts are really good at using a child's natural motivation to want things, to ask for things and request, to help them use language as a tool. Once they use language as a tool to get their needs met and to get things they want in the world, then behavior analysts might add additional aspects of language like labeling the environment, repeating what you hear, [and] lots of the other ways we use language in our natural world. That's a technique called verbal behavior that can really be powerful in building language development in children with autism."

These behavioral techniques are not only limited to children on the spectrum who are verbal, Bordieri explains. "Some children with autism may never develop spoken language, but they can learn augmented or other ways of communication as well. For example, using sign language or exchanging picture cards or using an app on their phone to communicate their needs with the world."

"Once we unlock that, where even children with disabilities are able to ask for what they need...communicate their wants and desires...the world really opens up to them in new ways. We're able to increase their independence and their ability to live a meaningful life," Bordieri concludes.