Does problem behaviour predict language development?

Does problem behaviour predict language development?

Is language development predicted by problem behaviours in children with autism?

Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are characterised by their impaired communication skills, either verbal or non-verbal. For example, they may respond inappropriately during social interaction, may not engage in turn-taking, or are unable to make inferences. As a result, they face difficulties in social participation, relationships, academic achievements, and occupational performance.

Language development trajectories of ASD individuals are diverse; their language abilities range from clinically normal (ALN), to various degrees of impairment (ALI), to never acquiring language. A social-interactionist perspective suggests that this could be because of ASD children’s diminished motivation to interact with others – for example, they tend to engage in joint attention with others less, and verbally imitate others less. As a result, their limited social experiences result in delayed acquisition of language.

Although autism severity scores are often related to development outcomes in ASD children, they do not necessarily predict the development of a board range of language skills. What about child problem behaviours? Do they affect language development? An interesting question thus emerges--

Is the language development trajectory predicted by child problem behaviours prior to early intervention? Read on to find out!

Bopp, Mirenda, and Zumbo (2012) from the University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada, conducted a study of 5 problem behaviours and investigated whether they were predictive of vocabulary and language development in young ASD children over 2 years.

The scores for 5 problem behaviours were measured right before and 6 months after the onset of early intervention.  The difference in these two scores were used as predictors of language development. The actual language growth curve was examined by measuring language development right before intervention, 6 months, 12 months, and 24 months after intervention. The variables measured are as follows:

language development

What did they find out?

Child inattentiveness refers to tendency to be highly distractible, and/or to have or decreased awareness of one’s surroundings. For example, this study looked at whether the child was paying attention to sights and sounds in the environment, being distracted by noise, or listening to instructions/a story (see diagram below). Children who showed more inattentiveness prior to intervention saw less progress in expressive vocabulary and language comprehension. This result supported the suggestion that inattentiveness negatively impacts children’s ability to learn (language) from the environment. Thus, it is imperative for early intervention to provide focused instruction on attending skills.

language development

Socially unresponsive behaviour refers to the decreased capacity to either initiate or respond to social and/or emotional exchanges by other people. Example behaviours include rarely smiling, not looking at faces, actively avoiding eye contact, and failing to respond to one’s own name (see diagram below). Children with higher scores in this area (i.e. less responsive) had poorer development in vocabulary comprehension and production, as well as in language comprehension. This could be because social-affective skills are important in language development. ASD children may have fewer social experiences as a result of their limited interaction skills, which in turn translates to fewer opportunities to hear, respond to, and learn language in social contexts.

language development

The study found no significant correlation between the other three behaviours (acting-out, restricted & repetitive behaviours, insistence on sameness) and language development.


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