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NIDCD Panel Proposes New Benchmarks for Gauging Language Development in Children with Autism

A more standardized approach is needed to evaluate the language skills of young children with autism spectrum disorders, says a soon-to-be published article in the Journal of Speech-Language-Hearing Research. The authors, a panel of experts assembled by the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), are advocating the new method so that researchers, clinicians, and other professionals are better able to compare the effectiveness of intervention strategies used for treating children with autism spectrum disorders. Current approaches are inconsistent, and the most widely used benchmark for these children has been the development of “functional speech,” an ambiguous term with no defined criteria. The term autism spectrum disorders refers to a range of related disorders that cause delays in many areas of childhood development, including skills for communicating and interacting socially. Current estimates are that one in 150 children in the United States will be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder.

In designing the new approach, panel members focused on the window of time during which a child develops spoken language, which can be broken down into three phases: the use of a single “first word” to describe an object or event, the combination of two or three words to communicate something, and the progression to complete sentences. The panel recommends the use of several tools to evaluate the child’s language skills, including a sample of the child’s natural conversational patterns, a parent’s description of the child’s language skills, and a standardized test of a child’s language skills. The panel then developed a set of measurable benchmarks for each of the three phases and evaluation tools. For example, a child with an autism spectrum disorder would be considered in the “first words” phase if he or she uses words with various combinations of consonants and vowels and has a vocabulary of a typical 15-month-old child, among other criteria.

The panel suggests that these benchmarks be expanded in the future to help in the evaluation of preverbal communication skills, language comprehension, and language development in children with autism who use augmentative and alternative devices.

Read the paper (in press).