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Early conversational skills in the younger siblings of children with autism

Britsch, Emily Roemer (2023) Early conversational skills in the younger siblings of children with autism. Doctoral Dissertation, University of Pittsburgh. (Unpublished)

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Neurotypical children have increasingly complex conversations in their first three years, beginning to respond in ways that maintain topics and add new information. These skills emerge in the context of dyadic exchanges – caregivers create opportunities for conversation, and conversations build on children’s language and pragmatic abilities, which are key areas of challenge for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Compared to children with no family history of autism (typical likelihood, TL), the younger siblings of children with ASD are at elevated likelihood (EL) for both ASD and non-ASD language delays. The present study used natural language sampling (i.e., transcribing and classifying parent and child speech) during parent-child toy play in the home to examine child spoken language, conversational skills, and parent contributions to conversations with three-year-old TL (n=16) and EL children with ASD (EL-ASD, n=10), non-ASD language delays (EL-LD, n=21), and typical development (EL-ND, n=37). Consistent with hypotheses, EL-ASD children produced fewer intelligible utterances and both the EL-LD and EL-ASD groups produced shorter utterances than neurotypical peers. When utterances were intelligible, all groups were highly likely to be contingent to the topic of conversation, contrary to expectations. However, EL-ASD children were less likely than all other groups to add new information to the conversation, and the extent to which children added new information was positively associated with utterance length and vocabulary diversity across groups. Parents of EL-ASD children had fewer opportunities to respond contingently to their child’s topic. However, all parents were highly contingent when child speech was intelligible, and complexity of parent speech varied with child spoken language ability and conversational skills. Parents produced similar proportions of questions, and regardless of outcome group, wh-questions (i.e., who, what, when, where, why, how questions) elicited child utterances that were longer and more likely to add new information to the conversation than other questions. Finally, coordinated joint engagement and expressive language in toddlerhood were independent predictors of conversational skills. Findings highlight children’s strengths in utilizing speech when interacting with caregivers and suggest that wh-questions from parents may be a promising target in interventions for children with ASD and non-ASD language delays.


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Item Type: University of Pittsburgh ETD
Status: Unpublished
CreatorsEmailPitt UsernameORCID
Britsch, Emily Roemerejr54@pitt.eduejr540000-0001-6678-2875
ETD Committee:
TitleMemberEmail AddressPitt UsernameORCID
Committee ChairIverson, Jana
Committee MemberLeyva, Diana
Committee MemberShaw, Daniel
Committee MemberSilk, Jennifer
Committee MemberWilliams, Diane
Date: 6 September 2023
Date Type: Publication
Defense Date: 22 July 2022
Approval Date: 6 September 2023
Submission Date: 30 April 2023
Access Restriction: No restriction; Release the ETD for access worldwide immediately.
Number of Pages: 131
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: autism, siblings, language, pragmatics, parent-child interactions
Date Deposited: 06 Sep 2023 12:51
Last Modified: 06 Sep 2023 12:51


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