We can find answers to many questions about language acquisition by working with children who have particular challenges in learning or using language, such as children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). This research will help us to understand the interaction between language learning and the developing brain. What we learn will also lead to better interventions.
Our lab is always looking for children with and without ASD to participate in research. It is the contributions of families, sharing their time and energy, that help us to understand the fascinating and complex process of language learning! To participate, visit this page.
In the ASD Long-term Outcomes Study (ALTOS), funded by NIH (PIs: Inge-Marie Eigsti and Deborah Fein), we are following a group of people who met full criteria for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) prior to age 5, but later had no symptoms, and have age-appropriate IQ and adaptive skills. In prior work, they appeared to use unique brain networks to achieve this particular outcome. Our newly-funded project will explore long-term ASD outcomes in two groups of individuals: (1) those we studied in our prior research as teens, and who are now young adults, using online assessments to evaluate how they navigate the difficult transition into independence and young adulthood; and (2) confirming the early presentation of ASD in children who were evaluated and diagnosed at ages 2-4 years, and are now in their teens, to permit the identification of early childhood predictors of long-term outcomes. An MRI study of this second group will investigate the functional connectivity of specific task-engaged social and language and resting-state networks, to specify the functional integration of the circuits involved in various long-term outcomes, and to test our proposed model of compensation. To get involved, contact our research coordinator Brittany Mills at (860) 486-3085.
Implicit learning and its relation to language delays
Clinicians, teachers, and parents agree that individuals with ASD have difficulty making generalizations about information they hear; that is, generalizing from specific instances to the general. A small and inconsistent literature has examined this kind of learning in ASD, and results are puzzling: some studies suggest intact abilities (Eigsti & Mayo, 2011), while others report difficulties. In our lab, we are studying this issue using behavioral games and functional brain imaging (MRI).
Nonverbal Communication in Autism Spectrum Disorders
We know that spoken language is influenced by the kinds of gestures we make while speaking. While clinicians have long indicated that individuals with ASD gesture differently, there has been little research on gestures other than pointing. Our work examines the execution and timing of gestures (de Marchena & Eigsti, 2010), and how gestures influence both listeners and speakers.
Pragmatic language abilities
Working memory is the ability to maintain and update knowledge. We are studying how people store and update information shared during a conversation, known as “common ground” (Schuh, Mirman & Eigsti, 2011), and how this interacts with working memory abilities.
We have been examining the “melody of the voice,” known as “prosody,” in ASD (Eigsti, Schuh, Mencl, Schultz & Paul, 2012). While not all individuals with ASD have prosodic difficulties, these difficulties strongly influence a person’s social and work success. We study how prosodic abilities are related to other aspects of language, and to differences in brain function.
In collaboration with Prof. Ed Large, we are investigating performance, music appreciation, and both rhythmic and pitch processing. If you are interested in participating, please contact us!