Association for Psychological Science week

This past weekend I attended the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science (APS). I attended several presentations on studies examining various aspects of child development and child disorders I decided to dedicate this week to several exciting preliminary studies presented at the convention.

Guest blogger and speech pathologist Nicole Hess recently commented on the use of gestures in pre-verbal babies. Specifically, she addressed the myth that using signing with preverbal babies affects the speech development of these children. At the APS Convention, a group of researchers from the University of Virginia presented a study that examined the association between gesture imitation and language development in Autism.

In this study the authors explored the use of sequential gesture imitation in children with autism and typically developing kids. The authors wanted to examine whether children with autism have a specific deficit in sequential imitation (as opposed to imitating a single gesture) and whether such deficits were also associated with language development.

The authors examined 14 kids with ASD and compared them to 17 typically developing children. The kids were asked to imitate gestures that varied in a number of domains, including the shape of the hand, type of movement, location relative to the body, and sequence length. The authors also assessed receptive and expressive language in the kids with autism as reported by at least 2 teacher informants.

The results:

  1. As previously shown in other studies, the children with autism committed significantly more imitation errors than the typically developing children.
  2. More interestingly, a major difference between the groups was noted in the imitation of a second sequential gesture.  Children with autism were just as likely as typically developing kids to imitate a single gesture (albeit with more errors as reported above). However, when asked to imitate 2 gestures sequentially, children with autism were significantly less likely than the typically developing kids to imitate the second gesture.
  3. Errors in gesture imitation was highly associated with language development, in that children with more advanced language skills committed less errors than those kids with less developed language skills – but this was not driven by the age of the child.

Two things I found particularly interesting in this study. First, children with autism had difficulty in sequential gesture imitation in addition to basic errors in single gesture imitation. This suggests that the complexity of gestures when they involve sequential planning is particularly difficult for these children. This is in line with our understanding of deficits in executive functioning (e.g., planning and organizing) in children with autism. But it is also interesting to see that these deficits were associated with language skills, suggesting that language difficulties in these children may be partly driven by deficits in sequential use of language symbols, since spoken language involves sequential gesturing (verbal gestures) that require the planning and organizing of sequential words.

The reference: Allison Jack, Katie Liskey, John D. Bonvillian, Herbert Richards (2009). Gestural Imitation Accuracy Associated With Language Ability in Children With Autism. Poster presented at the Annual Convention of the Association for Psychological Science. San Francisco. May 23, 2009. Dr. Herbert Richards is at the University of Virginia.

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4 Responses to Children with autism and sign language: Evidence for sequential gestures difficulties

  1. JulieL says:

    What kind of gestures were used? Were they using sign language at all? And how did the gestures corollate to the situation, that is were the gestures used in conjunction with context/content? If so, there could be additional reasons the ASD group had a harder time in their application and production of the secondary gestures.

    • Hi Julie, since this was only a poster presentation there are many details that we don’t know, including exactly which gestures were used. From my conversation with the author, not all gestures were sign language, but some were. I believe this is the same research group that has been developing simplified gestures for children with developmental disabilities, so I’m sure some of the gestures included some of the simplified sign-language symbols. Thanks N.

  2. Dave Crowley says:

    This is pretty interesting so I am astonished that there is no way to find out any more information. The article doesn’t even mention the name of the author of this interesting study, which in itself is ungenerous. Very poor marks the Child Psychology Research Blog.

    • Dear Dave, I appologize for the omission of the reference. The full reference for each study is usually included automatically at the end of each post I write. Unfortunately, this time I was writing directly from the conference and the reference was omitted. I just included the full reference with the name of all the authors, title, and their affiliation.

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