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Children shape their learning environment: the case of language acquisition in children with ASD

Grant from NIDCD will enable researchers to follow children's linguistic and social development

How do children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) learn to speak?

A close collaboration between University of Connecticut (Letitia Naigles (PI) and Deborah Fein) and Interacting Minds Centre researchers (Riccardo Fusaroli and Ethan Weed) is exploring how parents and children influence each other when they interact, and the longer term impact this has on language acquisition.


The group has recently published an article on Cognition detailing their first findings (“Hearing Me, Hearing You”, and been awarded $1.6 million from the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders in the US to further investigate the topic.


We often take for granted that children with ASD have difficulties with language and communication, generally learn to speak later and do not use language in fully appropriate ways. However, language use among children with ASD is incredibly diverse, ranging from age-appropriate language use to being completely non-verbal. These differences between children and their learning trajectories are not well understood yet.

“We initially looked into naturalistic parent-child play sessions following about 70 children (half with ASD) from 2 to 5 years of age.” says Ethan Weed “We were interested in how the child’s language development was affected by individual differences in cognitive abilities and in linguistic environment, that is, the quantity and structure of the language used by their parents when interacting with them”.

This study was published in Cognition with the title “Hearing me, hearing you”. The study replicates and extends previous findings.

  • Language development in ASD is modulated by the child’s cognitive abilities in a continuous fashion (from much lower to higher than typically developing children).
  • Even if they might show less engagement, children with ASD learn from their linguistic environment to the same extent as their typically developing counterparts. In particular, all children benefit from complex parental input, e.g. sentences with an articulated syntax and the use of many different words.

“Further”  explains Riccardo Fusaroli “we highlighted the reciprocal influence between child and parent. Children learn from the parental language, but they also influence it, since parents adjust their language to their children’s engagement and linguistic production”. In other words, the children’s behavior and linguistic production shapes their learning environment.

The grant from NIDCD (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders) will enable the researchers to follow the children’s linguistic and social development, as they are now between 8 and 17 years of age. Letitia Naigles and Deborah Fein are key experts in ASD and language development and have long worked with the families involved. Riccardo Fusaroli and Ethan Weed bring a specific focus on the the analysis of social interactions, as well as innovative statistical modeling of conversational dynamics and parent-child interactions in language development. This complements the more traditional focus on individual language performance.

New Insights

The study “Hearing me, Hearing you” highlights the great diversity of language development in children with ASD. It showcases the importance of children’ cognitive abilities and of the linguistic environment they are immersed in. Crucially, it emphasizes the active role children have in shaping their linguistic environment and long term impact this has on their language development.

Further information

Read more about the project, the research group and the grant here.



Riccardo Fusaroli is an Associate Professor in Cognitive Science at the School of Communication and Culture and at the Interacting Minds Center at Aarhus University. His research investigates what makes social interactions work and what makes them fail, with a focus on statistical and computational modeling techniques.

Email: fusaroli@cc.au.dk


Ethan Weed is an Associate Professor in Linguistics at the School of Communication and Culture and at the Interacting Minds Center at Aarhus University. The goal of his research is to understand the role of language in interaction between individuals with language and communication impairment and their environment.


Email: ethan@cc.au.dk