Friends of the Nonverbal Communication Blog, this week we present the paper “Gesture and Language Trajectories in Early Development: an Overview from the Autism Spectrum Disorder Perspective” by Ramos-Cabo, S.; Vulchanov, V. and Vulchanova, M. (2019), in which authors carry out a revision about the existent works about gestures, language, and how they are developed in children with autism spectrum disorders.  

When we talk about autism spectrum disorders, we mean a very broad and extensive group of different neurodivergences. Although these are very complex, we know a few things about them.

For example, one of the first signs of the existence of autism spectrum disorders (ASD) is the absence or late appearance of communicative behaviors, both verbal and non-verbal.

In this article authors comment that there is a large body of research showing that the evolution of language in typically developing children (TD) is highly dependent on their ability to produce gestures. However, there still are many questions without answers for children with ASD on this precise topic.

Authors therefore wonder whether gestures also influence language development in children with ASD, and if there are differences between the gestures of children with ASD and children with TD.

Authors mention many studies in the article, from which we can extract two main ideas that we will be developing.

In the first place: the association between gestures and language exists in children with ASD; secondly, there are, indeed, differences in the development of verbal and non-verbal communication skills between children with ASD and children with TD.

Regarding the first idea, multiple studies have shown that gestures can predict the language skills of children with ASD and, in particular, deictic gestures, which would be relevant both for these children and for those with typical development. Deictic gestures are those that are used to guide someone’s attention to something located in the environment.

The fact that these gestures are related to social and interactive demands indicates that they could constitute a powerful and useful tool for early interventions in children with ASD, since these disorders are also related to social interaction. 

Previous studies show that intervention in this area improves the vocabulary of children typically developed, which is why authors understand that it could be very beneficial for children with ASD, providing them with more nonverbal communication resources that could expand their verbal skills and, therefore, also improve social skills.

Regarding the second idea, there are numerous studies that indicate the presence of differences in the development of nonverbal communication skills in children with ASD when compared to the development of children with TD.

One of these differences is the lower rate of gestures in children with ASD compared to typically developing children. There would also be a progressive deterioration in the domain of deictic gestures in these children.

One idea raised by authors is that, due to the fact that no evidence of retardations in verbal and non-verbal communication appears until the first year of life, some previous studies have failed to find differences in early communication skills between groups of children with ASD and children with TD.

It should also be considered that babies with ASD can develop communication skills similar to those of children with TD, but the trajectory of this development changes from that first year that we have mentioned.

That is, at some point in the first two years of life there is a decline. This is not limited to the domain of communication skills, but also to social, cognitive and adaptive behaviors.

In any case, authors advise caution when interpreting these findings, as they consider that much more evidence is necessary, due to the complexity of autism spectrum disorders.

Authors mention the need for research that replicates this study and those mentioned in it. For some of the aforementioned investigations, methods such as the observation of unstructured interactions or analysis of home videos were used, so that, although they have some validity, their control is difficult. That is one point that can be improved.

They comment that gestural language elicitation methodologies are necessary, so that they can allow naturalistic interactions between the caregiver and the child in controlled environments. In that way, the children’s communication skills, as well as other cognitive and social skills, would improve substantially.


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