Study Aims to Find Source of Childhood Autism Language Problems

    The avoidance of eye contact is a well-known characteristic of those who have an autism spectrum disorder. But does that avoidance result in the common speech difficulties and other language development problems generally seen in those with the disorder?

    Southern – in a partnership with Haskins Laboratories, which is affiliated with both Yale University and the University of Connecticut – hopes to find out the answer to that question as part of a three-year study that recently began. The research is being funded through a $500,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health. SCSU is receiving about $300,000 of the grant.

    “This study could be transformative in terms of what we learn about autism spectrum disorders and for intervention for speech language programs,” said Julia Irwin, associate professor of psychology and the lead investigator for the project. “We hope it will enable us to better understand the roots of language difficulties, which in turn, will help us to treat children at an earlier age.”

    Irwin said that most research and clinical practice involving forms of autism emphasize the auditory perception component, but the visual aspect (exposure to mouth movements in face-to-face communication) receives relatively little attention.

    “Yet, reduced gaze to the face may have cascading effects on language learning in two important ways,” Irwin said. “First, it limits a child’s experience with the movements of a speaker’s face — movements that can help the listener understand what is said, especially in a noisy environment. Second, it can make it less likely that children will imitate the speaking faces of others, which is a powerful way to learn words.”

    The non-invasive study has children watching videos of people speaking and using an eye tracker to see where they are gazing during the video. The children will wear a specially designed cap that will enable researchers to look at the electrical activity of their brains with EEG and determine if there is an underlying problem integrating the auditory and visual information.

    Later, the children participate in a therapeutic training game called “Listening to Faces” with the use of an iPad. The game encourages the participants to look at the faces of individuals speaking. They will then be tested to see if there an improvement in their ability to hear and understand people speaking.

    “Our preliminary indication is that they do show improvement,” Irwin said. “But we need to expand the pool of participants before we can reach any conclusion.”

    Irwin said the researchers are asking for child volunteers, between the ages of 6 and 12, who will be paid $10 an hour for about six hours. The testing is conducted over two visits with about three hours per visit.

    Parents wishing to have their children tested should contact project coordinator Jacqueline Turcios, an SCSU graduate student, at to see if they are eligible.

    Several SCSU departments and individuals are involved in the project, including Larry Brancazio, chairman of the Psychology Department; Ruth Eren, director of the SCSU Center of Excellence on Autism Spectrum Disorders; Barbara Cook, assistant professor of communication disorders; the Center for Communication Disorders; Jonathan Preston, a former assistant professor of communication disorders; and graduate student Jacqueline Turcios.

    To learn more about the study, check out a recent article in the New Haven Register and the text version of a story on Channel 8.