Rethinking Simplified Sentences
Do kids with ASD benefit more from hearing complete sentences?
Have you ever caught yourself speaking to a young child (or maybe even a pet) differently than you would to an adult? Well, there’s actually a term for that. It’s called motherese, or child-directed speech, and at one point or another, we’ve all done it.
Child-directed speech is characterized by slow rate, high pitch, long pauses, and short, grammatically incomplete utterances. There is plenty of evidence suggesting that this funny way we speak to children serves as a vital aid to their language learning.
Micheal Sandbank and Paul Yoder from The University of Texas at Austin and Vanderbilt University, respectively, researched the effects of short, grammatically incomplete adult input on child language learning in populations with disabilities. They completed a meta-analysis – a method of combining the results of many previous studies – about the association between length of parental utterances and their child’s language development, specifically looking at the populations with disabilities.
At first, the data seemed to support what we already know. There was a small association between the length of parents’ utterances and child language outcomes, meaning parents don’t really need to speak in long, complete sentences with their children for them to learn language. Next, they examined only studies of kids with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and found different results. They found that when combining four previous studies, including 47 children with autism, that parental input length is strongly associated with positive language outcomes – children whose parents spoke in longer utterances had better language outcomes. As with a lot of science, more research is needed to really understand why this relationship exists – whether speaking longer phrases is the cause of the better language outcomes, vice versa, or whether other factors are in play.
How does this change things?
There are several intervention practices that prescribe the use of shorter, grammatically incomplete utterances to children with autism, but this could perhaps be improved. The popular interventions that currently recommend parental and clinician use of shortened speech, including Enhanced Milieu Teaching, the Early Start Denver Model, and the Hanen Program for Parents, have been demonstrated as effective, and therefore should not be scrapped in light of this evidence. Instead, clinicians should reconsider if the use of short, incomplete utterances is a critical and necessary part of treatment for kids with ASD. Parents can also do a few things to increase the probability that a child will process their parent’s input. Maybe try speaking in grammatically complete sentences, but avoid being too lengthy or complex – there is a limit to how much a child can process at one time, after all. Definitely continue using the other aspects of child-directed speech like pitch, tempo, and intonation to improve the ease of processing for their child, as these properties often serve to highlight meanings and important words.
Sandbank, M., & Yoder, P. (2016). The Association Between Parental Mean Length of Utterance and Language Outcomes in Children With Disabilities: A Correlational Meta-Analysis. American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology, 25(2), 240-251. doi:10.1044/2015_ajslp-15-0003