New project aims to help children with autism and language disorders improve communication skills

Linguistic research can be a constant uphill battle, especially when it comes to identifying comprehension difficulties in children. To address this, a new project led by The Open University of Catalonia (UOC) in Spain, called PROGESPRAG (Prosody, Gestures and Pragmatics), is planning to assess the role that speech intonation and gestures play in the way developing children communicate, especially those with language disorders and ones on the autism spectrum.

Taking a deeper look at all the moving parts behind communication is an important step for improving diagnostic measures and interventions for developmental language comprehension. This is exactly the goal for the UOC research team.

To analyze linguistic and gestural perception, the team will study the prosodic and gestural mechanisms that play a role in child development and how well children understand and communicate language in a meaningful way. The project will investigate this in 250 children with ages 5-10 from different Catalonian schools who are developing normally, have a developmental language disorder (DLD) or have autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

Results will be compared across the three groups. The researchers will also assess how children process linguistic patterns and pitch in real-time.

“Its aim is to explore two elements of communication and language that we believe can help children with DLD or ASD in the process of language comprehension, such as speech intonation and body gestures. These are two very important elements in communication but they have not been studied as much as other aspects, such as syntax or vocabulary, when assessing how children speak or understand language,” says Núria Esteve-Gibert, who is the leader of this project and director of UOC’s Master’s Degree in Learning Difficulties and Language Disorders program, in a statement.

To accomplish this, the team will utilize eye tracking technology to clearly identify eye movements and responses to the perception of a message. This technology works by recording the movement of the pupil in response to a sentence and allows the researchers to see whether the child is looking on the screen at the object mentioned in the sentence or the intention of it. This will be able to show if the child truly comprehends the message.

Moving forward, the goal is to produce sufficient evidence supporting the most effective design for efficient and reliable assessments and interventions for children struggling developmentally.

“We hope that our results will contribute towards designing much more precise and appropriate interventions to help children with these difficulties in the development of language and social communication,” explains Esteve-Gibert, who is also a member of the Cognition and Language Research Group (GRECIL) at the UOC’s eHealth Center.

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About the Author

Shyla Cadogan

Shyla Cadogan is a recent graduate from the University of Maryland, College Park with a Bachelor’s of Science in Nutrition and Food Science. She is on her way to becoming a Registered Dietitian, with next steps being completion of a dietetic internship at the University of Maryland Medical Center. Shyla has extensive research experience in food composition analysis and food resource management.

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