The Little Listeners Project: studying language development in toddlers with autism

Jenny Saffran


By Charlene N. Rivera-Bonet, Waisman Science Writer

Even through cute but unintelligible babbles, infants are hard at work learning how to become successful communicators. Some infants naturally develop into successful communicators within the first few years of life. Other children, including kids with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), may experience challenges as they learn how to interact with the world.  The Little Listeners Project at the Waisman Center focuses on children with ASD, and developing new research methods to learn how they use prediction skills during language development.

Susan Ellis Weismer, PhD
Susan Ellis Weismer, PhD

One of the first concerns that arise for parents of toddlers with autism is language or communication delays. Language abilities for kids with autism are predictive of a number of later outcomes – such as response to treatment and cognitive outcomes – says Susan Ellis Weismer, PhD, CCC-SLP, professor emeritus of communication sciences and disorders and co-principal investigator of the project. Which is why it is important to understand language development as early as possible.

Studying language in infants, however, can be tricky. “When you study babies, they can’t talk, right? In order to understand how they’re learning, we have to devise ways to figure out what they know without them telling us,” says Jenny Saffran, PhD, Distinguished Professor of Psychology, and co-principal investigator of the project. A similar challenge is presented in children with autism that haven’t developed strong communication skills, making it hard to figure out what the child knows or understands. “This led to this really interesting melding of the methods that we use with babies who can’t talk and using them to study young children with autism, who also sometimes have challenges talking,” Saffran explains.

Ellis Weismer and Saffran combined their expertise in developmental language challenges and designing experiments to test language development in infants to best understand language development in kids with autism through the Little Listeners Project. Jan Edwards, PhD, a former Waisman investigator who is now a professor at the University of Maryland, was also an integral part of the program’s beginning.

Jenny Saffran, PhD
Jenny Saffran, PhD

The Little Listeners Project uses infants’ gaze behavior – which tracks where a child is looking – as they watch short videos on a screen. Where the kids look based on what they hear tells researchers what the child understands. For example, a picture of a cup and a picture of a phone will appear on different sides of the screen as someone asks “Where is the phone? Can you find it?” The researchers then measure how quickly and accurately the infant, seating on their parent’s lap, fixates on the phone. “This turns out to be an incredibly fruitful way of getting into the minds of kids who can’t tell us with their spoken language,” Saffran says.

Their participants with ASD are 24-36 months, while the neurotypical kids, matched for language skills, are as young as 18 months old.

From a clinical perspective, the ultimate goal of the Little Listeners Project is to better understand the mechanisms of underlying language challenges in kids with autism. When deciphered, they may help pinpoint interventions to work on those areas specifically.

Little Listeners lab
Child participating in a language assessment task.

A second goal is to better understand how language learning works, what factors matter, and how language learning relates to other aspects of early child development. “The potential downstream applications are really substantial,” Saffran says.

Prediction skills and language learning

Using the eye-tracking technique, they are looking at prediction skills in kids with autism. They use the basic assumption that language information is processed by making predictions on what comes next in a conversation, and readjusting when those predictions are wrong. “One prominent theory about what might differ between the brains of autistic people and neurotypical people has to do with how the brain responds to changes and how we update our predictions,” Saffran says.

Through the study, the researchers look at how good the kids are at making and updating predictions under different contexts. During the experiment, they teach the kids that if they hear a male voice, they are going to see something cool on the left hand of the screen, and if they hear a female voice, they will see something cool on the right side of the screen. After a few trials, when the infants have learned this pattern and start to predict the outcomes, the patterns are flipped. “Most neurotypical kids will use their expectations and predictions. And then of course, sometimes the input violates that expectation, but they look at this more as a whole and take into account all of the information they had,” Ellis Weismer says. This allows them to determine when they need to learn a new pattern.

Susan Ellis Weismer, PhD
Susan Ellis Weismer, PhD at the Waisman Center

Kids with autism, rather than considering the whole picture, lean heavily on the last input, and overweigh each prediction error. “If it doesn’t fit their prediction, it’s like, ‘Oh, my gosh, it’s all new. I don’t know what’s happening.’ The level of novelty from their perception is very high. It means the environment is chaotic. It’s really hard to anticipate what’s going to happen,” Ellis Weismer explains.

These results, Ellis Weismer adds, may help explain many common behaviors in kids with autism such as insistence of sameness and highly predictable routines. “Specifically, we’re interested in language, but we think of it as a domain general process. So that it goes across linguistic and non-linguistic learning contexts,” Ellis Weismer says.

A merge of research and clinics

As part of the study, they are also able to provide an evaluation for autism diagnosis. This is based on the study’s need for detailed documentation, and having the same measures for every participant. In collaboration with the Waisman Center Clinics, the project staff also includes two clinical psychologists trained in autism diagnosis, as well as a licensed speech-language pathologist.

Martha Walter, PhDAutism diagnosis can sometimes be hard to obtain, and sites often include long waitlists. “[The Little Listeners Project] is a really unique way for families to be involved and participate in the research project, and to have a full clinical evaluation at the same time,” says Martha Walter, PhD, one of the clinical psychologists on the project.

The evaluation process consists of three visits in which they do interviews with parents using gold standard diagnostic tools, and assessments for the kids by both the clinical psychologist and speech-language pathologist. “We’re doing a very rigorous clinical evaluation with licensed providers that result in a report [families] can take to their doctors and therapists or other places, just as if they went to a different clinic. But, this is part of a research project and also contributing to the science, which many families talk about is important too,” Walter says.

The researchers recruit participants from outside of Madison, and pay for the family’s hotel and meals if they come from far away. This allows people in rural communities that don’t have access to diagnostic services to participate and receive a diagnosis for their children. The families also receive guidance regarding autism resources in their local community, and a textbook on how to help facilitate language skills.

The Little Listeners Project makes an emphasis on early diagnosis because of how valuable this has proven to be in the outcomes for kids with autism. Their work seeks to both understand how to better provide early diagnosis and helps families obtain it, which is incredibly valuable for both the researchers and the families.

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