Emerging research points to the benefit of early intervention for children diagnosed with autism. Unfortunately, there is no medical test to diagnose the disorder.
Instead, clinicians rely on parent observations to identify if a child is not following the normal developmental sequence such as failing to make eye contact, not responding to his or her name or playing with toys in unusual, repetitive ways.
Naturally, parents often wonder how much of the world their young children really understand. Though typically developing children are not able to speak or point to objects on command until they are between eighteen months and two years old, they do provide clues that they understand language as early as the age of one.
A new tool, demonstrated in a new video-article published in JoVE (Journal of Visualized Experiments) helps parents and professionals measure language comprehension of toddlers and young children with autism.
In the assessment, psychologists track a child’s eye movements while they are watching two side by side videos. Children who understand language are more likely to look at the video that the audio corresponds to.
This way, language comprehension is tested by attention, not by asking the child to respond or point something out. Furthermore, all assessments can be conducted in the child’s home, using mobile, commercially available equipment.
The technique was developed in the laboratory of developmental psychologist Dr. Letitia Naigles, and is known as a portable intermodal preferential looking assessment (IPL).
“When I started working with children with autism, I realized that they have similar issues with strangers that very young typical children do,” Naigles said.
“Children with autism may understand more than they can show because they are not socially inclined and find social interaction aversive and challenging.”
As such, this assessment approach removes much of the anxiety associated with a new environment that may skew results.
While this technique identifies some similarities between typically developing toddlers and children with autism spectrum disorder, such as understanding some types of sentences before they produce them, this does not mean that these children are the same.
“Some strategies of word learning that typical children have acquired are not demonstrated in children with autism,” Naigles said.
Experts say the test is valuable for assessing language development because it reveals a child’s strengths and weaknesses.