We explored whether children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) learn new nouns from overheard speech. Thirteen children (4–5 years) with ASD participated in an Addressed condition, in which they were directly taught a novel label (e.g., toma) for one of three novel objects, and an Overheard condition, in which the objects and label were presented in a conversation between two adults. In both conditions, children were then asked to identify the labeled object (e.g., “find the toma”). Children selected the target novel object at rates above chance in the Addressed condition, and of critical importance, they also did so in the Overheard condition. This suggests that, like TD children, children with ASD may learn from language that is not directed to them.
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One possible explanation for the lack of interpretable response on the second test is that children were confident in their response on the familiar word warm-up, but less so on the novel word trials and that they interpreted our second request as an indicator that their initial response was incorrect. Alternatively, perhaps children were still sufficiently engaged on the second test during the warm-up, but lost interest during the second test on the novel word trials. Akhtar et al. (2001) did not include a second test in their study with TD children.
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This work was supported by an Emerson College Faculty Advancement Fund Grant and an American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Advancing Academic-Research Careers Award to the first author, and NIH K01DC013306 to the second author. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the National Institutes of Health. We would like to express our gratitude to Molly Atkinson, Julia Bird, Nicole Coughlin, Marisa Curtis, Jessica Ghofrani, Katelyn Li, Amanda Netburn, Rea Ramos, Alicia Reifler, Madeline Saunders and Nicholas Souter for their help with design, recruitment, data collection and manuscript preparation. We would also like to thank the children and families who contributed their time and effort to make this project possible.
Conflict of interest
Rhiannon Luyster is an author on the ADOS-2 and receives royalties from sales. S. Arunachalam declares that she has no conflict of interest.
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Luyster, R.J., Arunachalam, S. Brief Report: Learning Language Through Overhearing in Children with ASD. J Autism Dev Disord 50, 2616–2624 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-018-3672-0
- Autism spectrum disorder
- Word learning