Research Project Focuses on Promoting Dual-Language Development for Children with Autism in Bilingual Families
A University of Massachusetts Amherst researcher has been awarded a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant to study bilingualism in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) whose household speaks a language other than English.
“This is a group that often is excluded from existing research or intervention studies,” says Megan Gross, assistant professor of communication disorders in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences. “And I think there’s still a lot of misinformation that can get out there to bilingual families about what language to speak at home with their child.”
The five-year, $755,000 career development grant will enable Gross to be mentored by a multidisciplinary team of experienced researchers from the fields of psychology, communication disorders and public health as she recruits 60 families in western Massachusetts for her sequential mixed-methods project, combining both quantitative and qualitative measures.
“I’ve worked clinically with autistic children, but I have not done research in the area of autism, so I think this career development award will be really beneficial for gaining training in how to responsibly conduct research with this population,” Gross says.
This is a group that often is excluded from existing research or intervention studies, and I think there’s still a lot of misinformation that can get out there to bilingual families about what language to speak at home with their child.
Megan Gross, Assistant Professor of Communication Disorders in the School of Public Health and Health Sciences
Until relatively recently, bilingual families who have a child with ASD were often encouraged by professionals to stick to one language in the home.
“I think they’re still getting advice that if language is hard for their child, two languages will be even harder, so they should just speak English,” Gross says. “And that has a lot of negative potential ramifications for the child’s positive development in terms of identity, their ability to communicate and interact with family members who may not speak English and so on. So, for a condition like autism, where communication is one of the areas that can be a source of challenge, adding to that by creating a language barrier between the child and their family member can be really problematic.”
Recent studies have shown that bilingual exposure is not detrimental to the development of children on the autism spectrum, Gross points out. “We need to move beyond that to understanding how we actually promote bilingual development in autistic children,” she says.
Gross will examine the type of bilingual environment to which children with ASD, ages 4-6, are exposed, as well as the different factors that relate to their ability to speak or understand both Spanish and English. She will also consider the children’s social communication and social-cognitive skills, such as cognitive flexibility, as well as their ability to understand and communicate in two languages.
To make it possible to include children who do not speak, Gross will use innovative eye-tracking technology to analyze their ability to comprehend bilingual spoken language. A camera at the bottom of a laptop computer will track the child’s eye movement as a word or phrase in English and Spanish is played out loud.
“By following their eye movements over time, we can tell whether they’ve understood the word or phrase that they heard because they should look at the corresponding picture,” Gross says. “This is a group I’m especially interested in including in my study. Even if they are not speaking, we need a way to measure what they are understanding when people are speaking to them in Spanish and English. And what skills might they have that they aren’t able to show us through their spoken language?”
Gross will spend the first year of her research in training and preparing materials, and will start recruiting families in 2024. Ultimately, she will interpret the quantitative findings within the context of in-depth qualitative interviews, focusing on family perspectives and challenges. The long-term goal is to collaborate with families and support services to develop community-based programs that promote the linguistic and social-cognitive development of bilingual children across the autism spectrum.
“It’s been a great interest of mine to contribute to the evidence base at the intersection between dual-language learning and autism,” Gross says.
Her mentors are Helen Tager-Flusberg, professor of psychological and brain sciences and director of the Center for Autism Research Excellence (CARE) at Boston University; Kathryn Derose, professor of community health education and acting director of the Center for Community Health Equity Research at UMass Amherst; and Sonja Pruitt-Lord, professor of speech, language and hearing sciences and director of the Child Language, Development, Disorders and Disparities Lab at San Diego State University.
This piece uses both identity-first (autistic person) and person-first language (person with autism) out of respect for differing preferences expressed among autistic adults, family members and community advisory board members for this project.
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