Play is one of the most important activities for learning, and a new study at the University of California, Los Angeles suggests that teaching preschool autistic children to share attention during play—a major developmental milestone for typical infants—can improve their language abilities later.
The study, published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, studied 40 children who were diagnosed with autism at ages 3 to 4 for five years. They and a control group both attended 30 hours a week of preschool, but adults directly played with the students at ages 3 and 4, pointing out toys and using gestures to direct their attention during play. When the treated children were 8 years old, those who had been trained to share attention had bigger vocabularies and better language skills than those who had not.
“The study findings suggest that focusing on joint attention and play skills in comprehensive treatment models is important for long-term spoken language outcomes,” the authors, led by Connie Kasari of the UCLA Center for Autism Research and Treatment, concluded.
The project is continuing to study ways to improve autistic students’ use of expressive language, considered a key for social interaction.
For more on emerging research in autism, check out my colleague Nirvi Shah’s blog on new identification methods.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.