Acquisition of verb meaning from syntactic distribution in preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder

Sabrina Horvath, Elizabeth McDermott, Kathleen Reilly, Sudha Arunachalam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: Our goal was to investigate whether preschool children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) can begin to learn new word meanings by attending to the linguistic contexts in which they occur, even in the absence of visual or social context. We focused on verbs because of their importance for subsequent language development. Method: Thirty-two children with ASD, ages 2;1–4;5 (years; months), participated in a verb-learning task. In a between-subjects design, they were randomly assigned to hear novel verbs in either transitive or intransitive syntactic frames while watching an unrelated silent animation or playing quietly with a toy. In an eye-tracking test, they viewed two video scenes, one depicting a causative event (e.g., boy spinning girl) and the other depicting synchronous events (e.g., boy and girl waving). They were prompted to find the referents of the novel verbs, and their eye gaze was measured. Results: Like typically developing children in prior work, children with ASD who had heard the verbs in transitive syntactic frames preferred to look to the causative scene as compared to children who had heard intransitive frames. Conclusions: This finding replicates and extends prior work on verb learning in children with ASD by demonstrating that they can attend to a novel verb’s syntactic distribution absent relevant visual or social context, and they can use this information to assign the novel verb an appropriate meaning. We discuss points for future research, including examining individual differences that may impact success and contrasting social and nonsocial word-learning tasks directly.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)668-680
Number of pages13
JournalLanguage, Speech, and Hearing Services in Schools
Issue number3S
StatePublished - Aug 2018

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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