With each issue, Trib+Edu brings you an interview with experts on issues related to public education. Here is this week's subject:
Micheal Sandbank is an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Austin’s College of Education. Her research focuses on language acquisition and children with autism and other developmental disabilities.
Editor's note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Trib+Edu: Could you tell me a bit about your recent research projects?
Micheal Sandbank: My research centers primarily on the study of language learning in young children with autism and other developmental disabilities. Children with autism are widely varied in their ability to develop flexible and spontaneous speech.
An estimate of 25 to 50 percent of children with autism will continue to struggle past age five to acquire language. Some will never master it, and they’ll remain minimally verbal into adulthood. This is really important because we know the acquisition of how to speak fluently by the age of five predicts several long-term life outcomes.
We really want to figure out, what are the factors that help young children with autism learn language? What’s the difference between the kids that learn to use language by age five and the kids that don’t? To study that, we have to look at young pre-verbal children with autism who may go on to learn language and who may not.
Trib+Edu: What has been your most interesting finding recently?
Sandbank: When adults speak to children they often use this special kind of speech called “child-directed speech,” or “baby talk.” This special way of speaking is nearly universally demonstrated by adults when they’re speaking to young children across the world. It’s thought to help kids learn language by making sounds more distinct and easy to process for language learning children.
We already know developing infants naturally tune into child-directed speech, but we also know that children with autism, as a group, don’t prefer child-directed speech. They won’t look to child-directed speech when it’s compared to non-speech sounds. And their lack of preference to child-directed speech has been tied to their ability to discriminate between different sounds.
We have all sorts of great tools for measuring language in children now. Sometimes you’re watching kids play with their parents and watching the amount of times they exhibit important behaviors we know predict language development — like looking at toys and looking at their parents again and then looking back at the toy.
Sometimes we’re studying language processing using brain measures like Event Related Potential (ERP). For that, we put special sensors on a child’s scalp to measure brain waves and then we play words and sounds and we compare the brain waves collected when they heard each word and sound.
We found that pre-verbal children with autism could discriminate between words and nonsense words when we looked at their brainwaves. Then we looked closely to see how the brain measure of their discrimination was related to a measure of their receptive language ability — so that’s the words they understand.
How well is this brain measure predicting the behavior that we care about, which is how much language they understand. We found that, overall, their word processing was related to their understood language.
But it also varied by how much they had a tendency to attend to child-directed speech. If kids attended to child-directed speech about half the time, their word processing brain measure was a pretty good predictor of their understood language. But if they didn’t attend to child-directed speech very much, their word processing brain measure wasn’t predictive at all of their understood language.
This really shows us that kids with autism that don’t tune into child-directed speech may process language in a different way at the cognitive level. And we want to learn more about that so we can develop ideas about how to intervene and help them learn language.
Trib+Edu: What is the role of academics in informing policies that help make schools better for kids?
Sandbank: We want to make education work for all kids, including those that struggle. To do that, we have to use strong science to figure out what works and how it works for different kinds of kids and then we can apply that science to everyday practice.
So I was a teacher myself and in all the research that I do I think about the eventual practical application of my findings. I also train future teachers, so I try to make sure that all of my recommendations are based on solid evidence and up-to-date research.
I think that a lot of people who are using neural measures to study children with autism don’t have that clinical background and are just sort of generating theories about how language processing works.
But for me, I feel compelled to say, “How can we take this into clinical practice? What does this mean for clinical practice?” And then I test this to see if my theory is right. At the end of the day, we do have that responsibility in special education research.