Exploring the effects of maternal input on the language of children with autism

Date of Completion

January 2007


Psychology, Developmental




The current study was designed to study the effects of maternal input, organized in terms of the three language domains of lexical, grammatical, and pragmatic, and their influence on the subsequent language and communication skills of both typically developing children and children with autism. One group consisted of 10 boys with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). The ASD children ranged in age from 27 to 41 months at the onset of the study (mean=33.4 months, SD=4.06). The second group consisted of an original group of 10 typically developing children (six girls and four boys) who ranged from 15-17 months at the onset of the study (Mean=16.6 months, SD=0.61). Four additional boys were added at a later point in the study. The children were visit five times in their home over the course of two and a half years. At Visits 1-5 (ASD: 33-88 months old; TYP: 17-51 months old) the children were assessed using a variety of standardized and nonstandardized psycholinguistic, language, and cognitive measures, as well as participating in free play sessions with their mothers. The free play sessions were used to explore the maternal input, as well as the children's spontaneous speech. ^ The most robust and innovative conclusion of the current study is that children with autism were "making use" of maternal input in their language development. This dissertation also highlights the fact that although many of the same input-output relationships emerged across groups, the timing of these relationships is not always the same, dependent upon the area of language being explored (lexical, grammatical, and discourse-pragmatic input). Specifically, frequency of maternal use of noun types influenced overall communication development for both groups, maternal use of Y/N questions influenced the development of auxiliaries, especially for the ASD group, and use of maternal expansions led to greater vocabulary in the ASD group. Within the set of discourse variables, maternal input itself had limited effect on children's language in the next visit, but the response of the children to maternal input was a striking predictor. Specifically, response to maternal statements and questions predicted many aspects of communication and socialization for both groups. ^