For Parents

For Parents

Taking Your Child’s Lead

What can fathers do to help their child with autism learn language?

Parents have a large influence on how their children learn language. Numerous research studies have explored how parents can motivate, encourage, and support their child’s communication development. However, the vast majority of these studies focus on the influence mothers have on their child’s communication (Flippin & Crais, 2011). By only considering mothers, we could be missing a major part of the story. A recent study at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill examined how both mothers and fathers can contribute to language development of children with autism.

One well-known strategy that parents can use to improve their child’s language skills is taking the child’s lead, or adding words or sentences to describe what their child is already paying attention to. We know that when mothers use this strategy to take their child’s lead, it can lead to improvements in language (Green et al., 2010; McDuffie et al., 2013). Does this apply to fathers as well? Or, should fathers of children with autism use different strategies to help their child learn language?

Here’s what the study found:

Mothers were given more opportunities to respond their child’s focus.

Labeling what the child is doing is great for enhancing communication. However, the ability to do so depends somewhat on the child. For instance, if the child is not actively playing or asking for something, it is very difficult for a parent to know what their child is focused on. The children in this study played and requested more often with their mothers than with their fathers, giving mothers more opportunities to respond to their child’s interests.

Mothers were more responsive than fathers.

Mothers took their child’s lead more often than fathers. This was true even when accounting for the fact that fathers had fewer opportunities to do so. This could be because fathers tended to ask more questions and redirect their child’s attention more often, instead of following their child’s lead.

Both mothers’ and fathers’ responsiveness predict child language scores.

One might believe that since fathers are less likely than mothers to take their child’s lead, their role as a language teacher is not as important. However, this is absolutely not the case! Although fathers in this study took their child’s lead less often, their input was still related to their child’s language abilities. In fact, in this study, fathers’ behaviors were more related to their children’s language abilities than mothers’ behaviors. Although fathers followed their children’s lead less than mothers did, fathers are just as important to a child’s language development.

This study only observed parents and children one time. This means that we don’t know which came first: parents who follow their child’s lead, or better language skills. When parents follow their child’s lead, it may be helping improve the child’s language skills. On the other hand, it might be that children who have better language skills to begin with make it easier for parents to follow their lead. Likely, both of these things contribute to children’s language development (McLean, 1990). In other words, children may shape the behavior of parents just as much as parents shape the behavior of children. In order to be more confident about how this relationship really works, the researchers would need to observe parents and children many times over the course of months or years.

This study reveals two important pieces of information about how fathers of children with autism impact their child’s language development. Fathers tend to follow their child’s lead less than mothers do. However, when fathers do follow their child’s lead, they help improve their child’s languages kills just like mothers do.

What does this mean for fathers of children with autism? It is important that fathers and mothers pay attention to how they communicate with their child. Learning to follow your child’s lead and talk about what your child is already paying attention to will help him or her to learn language.



Flippin, M., & Crais, E. R. (2011). The need for more effective father involvement in autism intervention: A systematic review. Journal of Early Intervention, 33, 24–50.

Flippin, M., & Watson, L. (2015). Fathers’ and Mothers’ Verbal Responsiveness and the Language Skills of Young Children With Autism Spectrum Disorder. American Journal of Speech-   Language Pathology Am J Speech Lang Pathol, 400-400.

Green, J., Charman, T., McConachie, H., Aldred, C., Slonims, V., Howlin, P., & Pickles, A. (2010). Parent-mediated communication-focused treatment in children with autism (PACT): A randomized controlled trial. Lancet, 375, 2152–2160.

McDuffie, A.,Machalicek, W., Oakes, A., Haebig, E., Ellis Weismer, S., & Abbeduto, L. (2013). Distance video-teleconferencing in early intervention: Pilot study of a naturalistic parent implemented language intervention. Topics in Early Childhood Special Education, 33, 173–185.

McLean, L. K. (1990). Communication development in the first two years of life: A transactional process. Zero to Three, 11(1), 13–19.