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Language Acquisition in Autistic Children: A Longitudinal Study

Nadège Foudon, Anne Reboul, Sabine Manificat, L2C2-CNRS-UMR5230 and Saint-Jean-de-Dieu Hospital, Lyon, France

The acquisition process of autistic children differs from that of normal children (acquisition by immersion) in that they need speech therapy support. Additionally, only half of autistic patients speak as adults and their linguistic level remains lower than that of normal subjects (Howlin 2003). Despite the importance of language in the diagnosis (it is one of the main criteria for autism in DSM-IV (1994)) and the deficits of autistic people, longitudinal studies of language development in autistic children donít exist. The aim of our study is to describe language acquisition in autistic children, and to propose more precise hypotheses regarding the language acquisition delay, as well as answering other questions: Why is there a severe delay of acquisition in verbal autistic people (first words: 38 months against 12 in normal children)? Why do Aspergers show a less severe delay (1st words: 15 months)? How can we explain the identical delay between first words and first combinations in autistic (14 months) and SLI children; and that itís higher than in normal (6 months) and even in Asperger children (11months)? There are three main (mutually compatible) hypotheses: (a) Dissociation between comprehension and linguistic production in autistic children. (b) Deficit in ToM (Theory of Mind) in autistic population, in addition to an SLI in verbal autistic children explaining the delay. (c) Deficit in ToM in all autistic population but with different degrees of impairment. To test these assumptions, we have collected and transcribed corpora from nine autistic children at different stages of language acquisition. We have compared our corpora with those of healthy and SLI children at similar stages. Additionally, we use parentsí questionnaires, plus an experimental test (borrowed from Savage-Rumbaugh et al., 1993) to evaluate the first hypothesis. We do standard false belief tests to assess ToM.

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