Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 49, Issue 2, pp 429–440 | Cite as

Toddlers with Autism Spectrum Disorder Can Use Language to Update Their Expectations About the World

  • Allison FitchEmail author
  • Annalisa Valadez
  • Patricia A. Ganea
  • Alice S. Carter
  • Zsuzsa Kaldy
Original Paper


This study examined if two-year-olds with ASD can update mental representations on the basis of verbal input. In an eye-tracking study, toddlers with ASD and typically-developing nonverbal age-matched controls were exposed to visual or verbal information about a change in a recently encoded scene, followed by an outcome that was either congruent or incongruent with that information. Findings revealed that both groups looked longer at incongruent outcomes, regardless of information modality, and despite the fact that toddlers with ASD had significantly lower measured verbal abilities than TD toddlers. This demonstrates that, although there is heterogeneity on the individual level, young toddlers with ASD can succeed in updating their mental representations on the basis of verbal input in a low-demand task.


Representations Updating Receptive language Language comprehension 



We thank the Autism, Behavior, and Child Development Lab Assessment Team with their help with clinical assessments as well as the families that participated in this study. Portions of this manuscript were presented at the International Meeting for Autism Research 2017.

Author Contributions

AF conceived of the study, participated in its design, conducted the statistical analysis, and drafted the manuscript; AV participated in the design and coordination of the study and conducted assessment measures; PAG conceived of the study and participated in the design; ASC participated in the coordination of the study and helped conduct statistical analysis; ZK conceived of the study, participated in its design and helped to draft the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.


This project was supported by a Seed Grant from the Simons Foundation under the auspices of the Simons Center for the Social Brain at MIT (#319294) to Z. Kaldy, and US Department of Health and Human Services, Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) Grant #R40MC26195 to A. S. Carter.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

All authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed this study were in accordance with the ethical standards of the Institutional Review Board of the University of Massachusetts Boston and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards.


  1. Arunachalam, S., & Luyster, R. J. (2016). The integrity of lexical acquisition mechanisms in autism spectrum disorders: A research review. Autism Research, 9(8), 810–828. Scholar
  2. Brady, N. C., Anderson, C. J., Hahn, L. J., Obermeier, S. M., & Kapa, L. L. (2014). Eye tracking as a measure of receptive vocabulary in children with autism spectrum disorders. Augmentative and Alternative Communication, 30(2), 147–159. Scholar
  3. Briggs-Gowan, M. J., Carter, A. S., Irwin, J. R., Wachtel, K., & Cicchetti, D. V. (2004). The brief infant-toddler social and emotional assessment: Screening for social-emotional problems and delays in competence. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 29(2), 143–155. Scholar
  4. Charman, T., Drew, A., Baird, C., & Baird, G. (2003). Measuring early language development in preschool children with autism spectrum disorder using the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory (Infant Form). Journal of Child Language, 30(1), 213–236.Google Scholar
  5. Chita-Tegmark, M., Arunachalam, S., Nelson, C. A., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2015). Eye-tracking measurements of language processing: Developmental differences in children at high risk for ASD. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(10), 3327–3338. Scholar
  6. Courage, M. L., Reynolds, G. D., & Richards, J. E. (2006). Infants’ attention to patterned stimuli: Developmental change from 3 to 12 months of age. Child Development, 77(3), 680–695. doi.Google Scholar
  7. Csibra, G., Hernik, M., Mascaro, O., Tatone, D., & Lengyel, M. (2016). Statistical treatment of looking-time data. Developmental Psychology, 52(4), 521–536. Scholar
  8. Curtin, S., & Vouloumanos, A. (2013). Speech preference is associated with autistic-like behavior in 18-months-olds at risk for Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(9), 2114–2120. Scholar
  9. de Marchena, A., Eigsti, I. M., Worek, A., Ono, K. E., & Snedeker, J. (2011). Mutual exclusivity in autism spectrum disorders: Testing the pragmatic hypothesis. Cognition 119(1), 96–113. Scholar
  10. Diamond, A. (1990). The development and neural bases of memory functions as indexed by the AB and delayed response tasks in human infants and infant monkeys. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 608, 267–317.Google Scholar
  11. Ferguson, B., Graf, E., & Waxman, S. R. (2014). Infants use known verbs to learn novel nouns: Evidence from 15-and 19-month-olds. Cognition, 131(1), 139–146. Scholar
  12. Frank, M. C., Braginsky, M., Yurovsky, D., & Marchman, V. A. (2017). Wordbank: An open repository for developmental vocabulary data. Journal of Child Language, 44(3), 677–694. Scholar
  13. Galazka, M. A., & Ganea, P. A. (2014). The role of representational strength in verbal updating: Evidence from 19-and 24-month-olds. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 121, 156–168. Scholar
  14. Ganea, P. A. (2005). Contextual factors affect absent reference comprehension in 14-month-olds. Child Development, 76(5), 989–998. Scholar
  15. Ganea, P. A., Fitch, A., Harris, P. L., & Kaldy, Z. (2016). Sixteen-month-olds can use language to update their expectations about the visual world. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 151, 65–76. Scholar
  16. Ganea, P. A., & Harris, P. L. (2010). Not doing what you are told: Early perseverative errors in updating mental representations via language. Child Development, 81(2), 457–463.Google Scholar
  17. Ganea, P. A., & Harris, P. L. (2013). Early limits on the verbal updating of an object’s location. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 114(1), 89–101.Google Scholar
  18. Ganea, P. A., & Saylor, M. M. (2013). Talking about the near and dear: Infants’ comprehension of displaced speech. Developmental Psychology, 49(7), 1299–1307. Scholar
  19. Ganea, P. A., Shutts, K., Spelke, E. S., & DeLoache, J. S. (2007). Thinking of things unseen—infants’ use of language to update mental representations. Psychological Science, 18(8), 734–739. Scholar
  20. Giserman Kiss, I., Feldman, M. S., Sheldrick, R. C., & Carter, A. S. (2017). Developing autism screening criteria for the Brief Infant Toddler Social Emotional Assessment (BITSEA). Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. Scholar
  21. Grandin, T. (1995). How people with autism think. In E. Schopler & G. B. Mesibov (Eds.), Learning and Cognition in Autism (pp. 137–156). New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  22. Happé, F., & Frith, U. (2006). The weak coherence account: Detail-focused cognitive style in autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(1), 5–25.Google Scholar
  23. Hartley, C., & Allen, M. L. (2014). Brief report: Generalisation of word-picture relations in children with autism and typically developing children. J Autism Dev Disord, 44(8), 2064–2071. Scholar
  24. Hartley, C., & Allen, M. L. (2015a). Iconicity influences how effectively minimally verbal children with autism and ability-matched typically developing children use pictures as symbols in a search task. Autism, 19(5), 570–579. Scholar
  25. Hartley, C., & Allen, M. L. (2015b). Symbolic understanding of pictures in low-functioning children with autism: The effects of iconicity and naming. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 45(1), 15–30. Scholar
  26. Hartley, C., Trainer, A., & Allen, M. L. (2017). Investigating the relationship between language and picture understanding in children with autism spectrum disorder. Autism. Scholar
  27. Jaswal, V. K., Croft, A. C., Setia, A. R., & Cole, C. A. (2010). Young children have a specific, highly robust bias to trust testimony. Psychological Science, 21(10), 1541–1547. Scholar
  28. Jyotishi, M., Fein, D. A., & Naigles, L. R. (2016). “Didn’t I just say that?” Comparing parent report and spontaneous speech as indicators of grammatical development. Resarch On Developmental Disabilities, 61, 32–43. Scholar
  29. Kaldy, Z., Kraper, C., Carter, A. S., & Blaser, E. (2011). Toddlers with autism spectrum disorder are more successful at visual search than typically developing toddlers. Developmental Science, 14(5), 980–988. Scholar
  30. Kelley, E., Paul, J. J., Fein, D., & Naigles, L. R. (2006). Residual language deficits in optimal outcome children with a history of autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36(6), 807–828.Google Scholar
  31. Kjelgaard, M. M., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2001). An investigation of language impairment in autism: Implications for genetic subgroups. Language and Cognitive Processes, 16(2–3), 287–308. Scholar
  32. Klin, A., Danovitch, J. H., Merz, A. B., & Volkmar, F. R. (2007). Circumscribed interests in higher functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorders: An exploratory study. Research and Practice for Persons with Severe Disabilities, 32(2), 89–100.Google Scholar
  33. Koenig, M. A., & Echols, C. H. (2003). Infants’ understanding of false labeling events: The referential roles of words and the speakers who use them. Cognition, 87(3), 179–208.Google Scholar
  34. Lazenby, D. C., Sideridis, G. D., Huntington, N., Prante, M., Dale, P. S., Curtin, S., … Tager-Flusberg, H. (2016). Language differences at 12 months in infants who develop autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46(3), 899–909. Scholar
  35. Lord, C., Rutter, M., DiLavore, P., Risi, S., Gotham, K., & Bishop, S. (2012). Autism diagnostic observation schedule (2nd ed.). Los Angeles: Western Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
  36. Luyster, R. J., Kadlec, M. B., Carter, A., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2008). Language assessment and development in toddlers with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 38(8), 1426–1438. Scholar
  37. Luyster, R. J., Lopez, K., & Lord, C. (2007). Characterizing communicative development in children referred for autism spectrum disorders using the MacArthur-Bates Communicative Development Inventory (CDI). Journal of Child Language, 34(3), 623–654.Google Scholar
  38. Luyster, R. J., & Lord, C. (2009). Word learning in children with autism spectrum disorders. Developmental Psychology, 45(6), 1774–1786. Scholar
  39. Mullen, E. (1995). Mullen scales of early learning. Circle Pines: American Guidance Service, Inc.Google Scholar
  40. Naigles, L. R., Kelty, E., Jaffery, R., & Fein, D. (2011). Abstractness and continuity in the syntactic development of young children with autism. Autism Research, 4(6), 422–437. Scholar
  41. Naigles, L. R., & Tek, S. (2017). ‘Form is easy, meaning is hard’ revisited: (re) Characterizing the strengths and weaknesses of language in children with autism spectrum disorder. Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Cognitive Science. Scholar
  42. Paul, R., Chawarska, K., Cicchetti, D., & Volkmar, F. (2008). Language outcomes of toddlers with autism spectrum disorders: A two year follow-up. Autism Research, 1(2), 97–107. Scholar
  43. Piaget, J. (1954). The construction of reality in the child. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  44. Plaisted, K., O’Riordan, M., & Baron-Cohen, S. (1998). Enhanced visual search for a conjunctive target in autism: A research note. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 39(5), 777–783. Scholar
  45. Preissler, M. A. (2008). Associative learning of pictures and words by low-functioning children with autism. Autism 12(3), 231–248. Scholar
  46. Preissler, M. A., & Carey, S. (2005). The role of inferences about referential intent in word learning: Evidence from autism. Cognition, 97(1), B13–B23. Scholar
  47. Saylor, M. M., & Baldwin, D. A. (2004). Discussing those not present: Comprehension of references to absent caregivers. Journal of Child Language, 31(3), 537–560. Scholar
  48. Smith, N. J., Sheldrick, R. C., & Perrin, E. C. (2013). An abbreviated screening instrument for autism spectrum disorders. Infant Mental Health Journal, 34(2), 149–155. Scholar
  49. South, M., Ozonoff, S., & McMahon, W. M. (2005). Repetitive behavior profiles in Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35(2), 145–158. Scholar
  50. Swensen, L. D., Kelley, E., Fein, D., & Naigles, L. R. (2007). Processes of language acquisition in children with autism: Evidence from preferential looking. Child Development, 78(2), 542–557. Scholar
  51. Tager-Flusberg, H. (1985). Basic level and superordinate level categorization by autistic, mentally retarded, and normal children. Journal of Experimental Child Psychology, 40(3), 450–469.Google Scholar
  52. Tek, S., Jaffery, G., Fein, D., & Naigles, L. R. (2008). Do children with autism spectrum disorders show a shape bias in word learning? Autism Research, 1(4), 208–222. doi.Google Scholar
  53. Ungerer, J. A., & Sigman, M. (1987). Categorization skills and receptive language development in autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 17(1), 3–16.Google Scholar
  54. Vouloumanos, A., Martin, A., & Onishi, K. H. (2014). Do 6-month-olds understand that speech can communicate? Developmental Science, 17(6), 872–879. Scholar
  55. Vouloumanos, A., Onishi, K. H., & Pogue, A. (2012). Twelve-month-old infants recognize that speech can communicate unobservable intentions. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 109(32), 12933–12937. Scholar
  56. Weismer, S.E., Gernsbacher, M. A., Stronach, S., Karasinski, C., Eernisse, E. R., Venker, C. E., & Sindberg, H. (2011). Lexical and grammatical skills in toddlers on the autism spectrum compared to late talking toddlers. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 41(8), 1065–1075. Scholar
  57. Xu, F., Cote, M., & Baker, A. (2005). Labeling guides object individuation in 12-month-old infants. Psychological Science, 16(5), 372–377. Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PsychologyUniversity of Massachusetts BostonBostonUSA
  2. 2.Eric Jackman Institute of Child StudyUniversity of TorontoTorontoCanada
  3. 3.Speech, Language & Hearing Sciences DepartmentBoston UniversityBostonUSA

Personalised recommendations