Prelinguistic/emerging Linguistic Gesture Use in Young Autistic Children


May 2023

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Autism is a complex neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by disruptions in early social communication skills. Early gesture plays a key role in prelinguistic/emerging linguistic communication and may provide insight into a child’s social communication skills before they acquire speech. As such, gesture is of particular interest for autism researchers. However, little is known about the gesture production of young autistic children from diverse racial/ethnic backgrounds in the early stages of gesture. In this dissertation, we explored the gesture production of young autistic children in the pre-linguistic/emerging linguistic stage of development within dyadic interactions across three studies. Data were gathered from culturally and socioeconomically diverse autistic children (ages 18-59 months) and a parent who participated in one of two more extensive randomized control trials of an early autism intervention. Study 1 explored the associations among race/ethnicity, parent gesture rate, and child gesture rate. Results indicated parents—like parents of non-autistic children—exhibited cross-racial/ethnic differences in gesture rate. However, child gesture rates were not related to the gesture rates of their parents. Consequently, children did not exhibit the same cross- racial/ethnic pattern of differences in gesture as their parents. Study 2 explored the relationship between elicitation task and child gesture. The rate and type of child gestures were compared across a naturalistic interaction with a parent and a standardized assessment of child communication administered by a research clinician. Results indicated (1) the most gestures and (2) the most developmentally advanced gestures were produced within structured interactions with clinicians that tempted child communication, while the fewest gestures were produced within play. Further, developmental differences emerged, such that greater differences between tasks were exhibited by children with receptive language ages greater than or equal to 9 months than by children below this developmental level. Study 3 analyzed the relationships among motor skill, social skill, and gesture in two ways: (1) the roles of gross motor, fine motor, and social skills (as measured by standardized assessments) on the rate of child gesture and (2) the relationship between the social sophistication of communication (level of communicative intention and coordination of communicative behaviors) and motor complexity of points. We found (1) standardized measures of social and gross motor (but not fine motor) skills explained unique variance in child gesture rate; (2a) coordination of communicative behaviors was positively related to motor complexity of gesture, with a small effect size; and (2b) motor complexity was related to the intentionality of communication (i.e., the degree to which the point had to first get/direct the adult’s attention) rather than to the social sophistication of the intention. Taken together, the work presented here underscores the importance of using diverse samples in autism research and interpreting results through a lens of cultural awareness. Our findings suggest an important role of motor skill in gesture production for young autistic children which has implications for future early intervention research.



Health Sciences, Speech Pathology