Autism affects one in every 150 children. Most of them have difficulty communicating and around 50 percent fail to develop speech at all.
Identifying the best communication tools for those without speech is the focus of a three year research project by Professor Jeff Sigafoos from Victoria and Dr Dean Sutherland from the University Of Canterbury. Their work is being supported by an $885,000 grant from the Marsden Fund, which is administered by the Royal Society of New Zealand and allows the country’s top researchers to explore their ideas.
Professor Sigafoos and Dr Sutherland will study 40 children aged between four and seven and hope to find enough families willing to take part in the project in Wellington and Christchurch, where the two researchers are based.
They will be testing responses to the three most common alternatives to speech for autistic children—sign language, pointing to or exchanging pictures, and electronic speech-generating devices. The latter group includes the iPad or iPod Touch with special applications installed and a range of text-to-speech machines.
Professor Sigafoos says the research has exciting potential to reduce some of the behavioural problems associated with autism.
“Evidence has been accumulating since the 1970s that autistic children who fail to develop speech are more likely to experience things like aggression, extreme tantrums, and self harming behaviours. Frustration at being unable to communicate is regarded a prime cause.”
Children under the age of seven are being selected because “early intervention will help prevent behaviour problems later”.
Professor Sigafoos says researchers around the world have differing views on which of the three options is most effective, but until now there has been little scientific evidence to inform debate.
“Our work won’t settle the argument but, for the first time, there will be objective data about how autistic children respond to each of the communication tools.”
Children taking part in the research will be studied at home, pre-school and/or school.Overall, Professor Sigafoos hopes the research will improve the development of communication skills in children with autism.
“Ideally we would like to teach all children with autism to speak but the reality is that a significant proportion will never achieve that. However, by identifying and using their preferred tools and techniques, we may be able to help autistic children become better all round communicators.”
Professor Sigafoos says getting grants from the Marsden Fund is a very competitive process and “it’s great to see them deciding this is an area of research worth supporting”.
“Past research into autism has clearly led to better outcomes and improved quality of life for autistic children and their families. Children with more severe symptoms, including lack of speech, are one of the remaining areas that needs attention.”
Jeff Sigafoos holds a Professorship in the College of Education at Victoria University and an Adjunct Professorship at James Madison University in Virginia, USA. He has authored numerous articles, book chapters and books describing the results of his research on interventions for individuals with developmental and physical disabilities.