Evaluation of an Explicit-Visual Syntax Intervention for Minimally-Verbal Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Principal Investigator(s):
Bobbi Rohwer
Grant Type:
Graduate Research
University of Minnesota
Minneapolis, Minnesota
Year Awarded:
Early Intervention; Social and Communication Skills


While improving communication skills in children with autism is a growing field, there remains a substantial gap in intervention research aimed at increasing expressive, verbal language – from the single word stage to complete sentences – in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with complex communication needs. Children with complex communication needs have significantly-impacted speech, language, and/or cognitive abilities and often do not communicate using conventional methods. Currently, very few studies exist that explore syntax intervention (i.e., intervention at the sentence level) specifically for emerging communicators with ASD. The purpose of the current study is to bridge the gap in the literature by evaluating an explicit-visual syntax intervention method to increase spontaneous language production while maintaining proper syntactic form. The most common sentence pattern in English is Subject Verb Object (SVO). The proposed method uses a visual aid known as a pacing board equipped with a static pattern of shapes representing the SVO syntactic form. This study aims to determine if when taught with the proposed explicit-visual syntax instruction, children with ASD produce longer, more complex sentences during treatment sessions compared to a traditional Milieu teaching approach. Because the child is not being prompted with overt symbols, he or she is expected to independently identify the important content words one at a time, using the pattern, thus creating a functional three-word sentence. We hypothesize children will increase functional multi-word utterances and experience collateral increases in spontaneous, novel vocabulary production outside of the intervention setting. By initiating this study, we hope to inspire other researchers and clinicians to invest more time and resources into better understanding the role of early syntactic development in emerging communicators with ASD and eventually children with other language profiles.

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