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Walking, Exploration, and Communication: An Investigation of Developmental Cascades in Infants with Low vs. Heightened Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder

West, Kelsey L. (2019) Walking, Exploration, and Communication: An Investigation of Developmental Cascades in Infants with Low vs. Heightened Risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Learning to walk enables infants to travel faster and farther, exploring more of their environment (e.g., Adolph & Tamis-LeMonda, 2012). This enhanced mobility may have a cascading effect on infants’ exploration and social interactions. Notably, infants with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) begin walking later and with reduced proficiency compared with neurotypical infants (e.g., Esposito, Venuti, Apicella, & Muratori, 2011; Minshew, Sung, Jones, & Furman, 2004; West, 2018; Bhat et al., 2011). This may lead infants with ASD to experience this transition differently. This dissertation had two overarching objectives: 1.) investigate whether the onset of walking corresponds to a shift in infants’ interactions with objects and people, and 2.) examine whether and how this cascade diverges in ASD. To this end, we measured longitudinal changes in infants’ locomotion, object interactions, communication, and caregivers’ contingent responses during the transition to walking in two cohorts of infants. The first cohort consisted of 25 infants with no family history of ASD (Low Risk; LR). The second consisted of were 91 infants who are at Heightened Risk (HR) for ASD by virtue of having an older sibling with an ASD diagnosis. In particular, we compared data across three HR outcome groups: infants who later developed ASD (HR-ASD), infants with language delay (HR-LD), and infants with no diagnosis (HR-ND). Across this transition, neurotypical infants walked more, played with a greater variety of objects, produced more frequent gestures and vocalizations, coordinated communicative behaviors with locomotion more frequently, and received proportionately more contingent verbal responses from caregivers. These findings lend support to the notion that learning to walk instigates a cascade, affecting many other domains of development. This transition differed for HR-ASD infants in important ways. Compared to their neurotypical peers, HR-ASD infants showed reduced growth in the variety of objects they played with, the frequency of gestures and vocalizations they produced, reduced coordination of communication and locomotion, and fewer verbal responses from caregivers. This dissertation thus provides evidence that the transition to walking marks a point in development when the gap in communication and social-interaction between ASD and neurotypical infants widens.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
West, Kelsey L.kelsey.west@pitt.eduklw780000-0002-3470-1951
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairIverson, Jana M.jiverson@pitt.edujiverson0000-0001-9160-7825
Committee MemberBrownell, Celiabrownell@pitt.edubrownell0000-0001-5826-8745
Committee MemberLibertus, Klausklaus.libertus@pitt.eduklaus.libertus0000-0002-5178-2415
Committee MemberCham, Rakiercham@pitt.edurcham0000-0003-2595-9376
Date: 25 June 2019
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 6 March 2019
Approval Date: 25 June 2019
Submission Date: 8 April 2019
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 109
Institution: University of Pittsburgh
Schools and Programs: Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences > Psychology
Degree: PhD - Doctor of Philosophy
Thesis Type: Doctoral Dissertation
Refereed: Yes
Uncontrolled Keywords: language development, developmental cascades, walking, autism spectrum disorder
Date Deposited: 25 Jun 2019 21:56
Last Modified: 25 Jun 2019 21:56


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