Communication Breakthrough for Autism?

by Tom Kloiber on January 18, 2013

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Communication Breakthrough for Autism?

Parents of autistic children have many questions. How much does my child understand? Does he know what’s going on? How much is getting through? When a child can’t communicate in a traditional way, it can be difficult to make a connection or even understand basic needs and wants. But much in the way mothers can understand the pre-speech needs of their babies, they may also be able to understand communication clues from non-verbal autistic children.

A new video test aims to study autistic toddlers and children to shed light on the extent to which autistic non-verbal children understand communication. A video-article published in JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments) demonstrates language comprehension assessment in toddlers and young autistic children.

The test exposes young subjects to two videos running side by side, along with an independent audio track that relates to only one of the videos. Children who have some understanding of language are drawn to the video that relates to the audio. During the test, a psychologist tracks eye movements to determine how the child responds to the video paired with the audio.

The technique, called portable intermodal preferential looking assessment (IPL), was developed in the lab headed by Dr. Letitia Naigles. “Children with autism may understand more than they can show because they are not socially inclined and find social interaction aversive and challenging,” said Dr. Naigles. By testing children at home where they are comfortable and everything is familiar, Dr. Naigles says that assessment is more valuable, less affected by stress and anxiety.

While the test has applications for both developing young children and autistic children, Dr. Naigles asserts that there is some comparison between the two groups, but they are not the same and do not have the same issues.

We can only speculate what this will mean to autism treatment in the future, but it is a valuable tool for assessment and will help researchers to understand this difficult condition. Research like this may eventually lead to improved communication inroads to the private, secretive world of autistic children. We already know that most can respond and interact on some level to specific stimuli. SLPs are successfully using touchscreen technology available on tablet computers to stimulate and engage kids with autism. Perhaps this research will spur new ways to integrate video clues for more effective communications. It will certainly give parents peace of mind to find out that their child understands language, even if he does not have the tools to communicate on his own. Where do you think this research will lead? Are we on the road to better understanding?

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