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My Five-Year-Old Child Does Not Talk … Will He Ever?

This guest post is  by Connie Kasari, Ph.D., a Professor of Education and Psychiatry and the Center for Autism Research at UCLA.

This is the question and the worry for a quarter to about half of all parents of children with autism.  Research studies tell us that children who can talk by the time they turn five years old have better outcomes.  But is this age marker meaningful, and what does it mean exactly?

The extraordinary success of early intervention programs has been shrinking the numbers of children who remain nonverbal.  Still many children develop slowly, becoming late speakers if at all.   What do we know that helps these children?

Late speaking children were the subject of a recent review paper, which was selected as one of Autism Speaks’ Top 10 Scientific Achievements in 2009 (Pickett, Pullara, O’Grady & Gordon, 2009).  The authors found 64 studies involving 167 children who learned to speak after age five.  Several important observations were noted.  First, the authors found that while most children who learned to speak were between five and seven years some children learned to speak for the first time at age 13 years!  The majority of children learned single words, but some were able to speak in sentences.  Finally, the numbers they report are probably an underestimate of actual cases since researchers often exclude children who are nonverbal, or under-report late speaking children.  Therefore, it may be harder to learn to speak after age five, but it is clearly not impossible.

What types of interventions are helping children to speak? Several approaches look promising.  Both behavioral interventions and ones using augmentative and alternative communication devices (AAC) seem to work.  AAC approaches (examples include PECS, sign language and speech generating devices) do not seem to inhibit the development of spoken language (Schlosser & Wendt, 2008); however, for many children the use of AAC allows them to become communicators without reliance on spoken language.  Thus, AAC interventions need to be adopted more often and studied.

Applied behavior analysis (ABA) is the most common approach to teaching children with autism; however, the results of intensive training have not always improved spoken language.  A promising hybrid behavioral and developmental intervention focuses on ‘joint attention’, nonverbal gestures that develop before children learn to speak with words, and involve the sharing of attention between a person and an object or event.  Preschool aged children who received a joint attention intervention made greater language gains than children receiving traditional applied behavior analysis interventions (Kasari et al, 2008) but it is not clear if similar interventions will work with older children.

At UCLA we are beginning to test out whether a joint attention intervention will be effective for children who are nonverbal and older than five years. The study is an Autism Speaks funded High Risk, High Impact study for Characterizing Cognition in Nonverbal Individuals with Autism (CCNIA).  This multi-site study involves researchers from UCLA, (Connie Kasari) Kennedy Kreiger Institute (Rebecca Landa) and Vanderbilt University (Ann Kaiser).  We are comparing our joint attention intervention with a focus on spoken language (using Enhanced Milieu Training; Kaiser, Hancock & Nietfeld, 2000) to an intervention involving the use of a speech -generating device.  A unique aspect of this study is the use of an alternating treatment design, recognizing that children may need a sequence of treatments for best response, or may respond better with one treatment versus another.  This design is called a SMART design (sequential multiple assignment randomization trial –SMART; Murphy, 2005).  Our goal is to determine the most effective intervention for increasing communication competence of children who are nonverbal, recognizing the variability in characteristics of these children, and the individualized nature of their response to treatment.

So the good news is that language development CAN progress after age five, but stay tuned for more research!

Kaiser, A. P., Hancock, T. B., & Nietfeld, J. P. (2000). The effects of parent-implemented enhanced milieu teaching on the social communication of children who have autism. Journal of Early Education and Development [Special Issue], 11(4), 423-446.

Kasari, C., Paparella, T, Freeman, S.N., & Jahromi, L (2008).  Language outcome in autism: Randomized comparison of joint attention and play interventions.  Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, 76, 125-137.

Murphy SA. (2005) An Experimental Design for the Development of Adaptive Treatment Strategies. Statistics in Medicine. 24:1455-1481.

Pickett, E., Pullara, O, O’Grady, J., & Gordon, B. (2009).  Speech acquisition in older nonverbal individuals with autism: A review of features, methods and prognosis. Cognitive Behavior Neurology, 22 1-21.

Schlosser, RW, & Wendt O (2008).  Effects of augmentative and alternative communication intervention on speech production in children with autism: A systematic review. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology • Vol. 17 • 212–230.

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