UC Merced professor heads language development research

UC Merced cognitive science professor Anne Warlaumont has spent the last five years working on a nationwide observational study that analyzes the impact that interaction between children and parents has on language development, a study she is considering continuing in Merced.

Verbal interaction between parents and children is beneficial for language development, according to Warlaumont’s research paper “A Social Feedback Loop for Speech Development.”

Warlaumont’s research found that speech growth, however, may be diminished when the social interaction includes an autistic child.

Warlaumont worked with the Colorado-based Language Environment Analysis Research Foundation and the University of Memphis from 2009 to 2013 in monitoring the interaction of children and their caregivers.

The study included 106 typically developing children and 77 autistic children, all between 8 months and 4 years old. The research produced 13,836 hours of audio recordings that were used to analyze how parents respond to children’s sounds.

The research found that parents are more likely to immediately respond to children when the vocalizations are speech-related. In return, children are more likely to create more vocalizations and form an interaction that promotes speech development.

This means that because autistic children produce less speech-related vocalizations, the opportunities for verbal interaction that would promote language development are lessened.

“These local effects appear to add up over the millions of exchanges children experience over the first few years of life, resulting in substantial differences in the types of sounds kids produce,” Warlaumont said.

The research was done by using a small audio recorder worn by each child. The recordings were then processed by software technology that identified who or what was making sound.

Warlaumont feels the research is essential in finding ways in which parents can interact with autistic children more effectively.

“Understanding how it works and being able to monitor its components while the children go about their daily lives may eventually lead to better strategies for helping parents and other adults interact most effectively with autistic children,” Warlaumont said.

She looks forward to bringing her research to Merced with the help of UC Merced psychology professor Eric Walle. “We would definitely like to dig deeper. It might be really interesting to bring the study to Merced, and look at different interventions for children with autism where you train parents on how to better communicate with their children.”

Warlaumont and Walle are currently looking for 10-month-old children who would start being monitored at 12 months old.

Warlaumont’s research paper is set to be published in the Psychological Science journal within the next few weeks.

“I think it’s exciting to look at the microstructure interactions between individuals and how they change under different circumstances,” said Warlaumont. “I’m just excited that it all worked out.”