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Last Updated August 6, 2013  

Susan Ellis Weismer, PhD






Ongoing Studies

We are currently recruiting for the following studies:

Previous Studies

Toddler Talk Project

Characterizing Early Language Development in Children Diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD)

The Toddler Talk Project followed 103 children who were diagnosed as being on the autism spectrum from the time that they were two to the time that they were five or six years old. At each visit, the children participated in a variety of language and developmental assessments. The results of these evaluations will be used to assist in determining which factors occurring at age two may influence language development at age five.

Preliminary analysis of the data collected at the first visit has provided insight in several areas. Thus far, we have learned:

  • early motor skills (things like throwing a ball, walking up stairs, turning the pages of a book, stacking small blocks, etc.) of the children who participated in the project were not delayed at age two in relation to cognitive level.
  • not unexpectedly, socialization (eye contact, responding to others, etc.) and communication were the areas of greatest difficulty for the children at age two as measured by the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales-2.
  • surprisingly, only the children's response to joint attention measured during the first visit's language sample, predicted the children's growth in both their understanding and use of language at their second visit.
  • many of the children demonstrated restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRB's) during their first visit. RRB's include things such as lining items up precisely, spinning wheels on cars and repeating the same action over and over again. Children who showed greater understanding of language at their second visit (as compared to their first) also showed a decrease in the number of RRB's produced at their second visit.

Ongoing analyses will provide further insight into language development in toddlers and preschoolers who are on the autism spectrum.

The Toddler Vocabulary Project

The Toddler Vocabulary Project assessed preschoolers who were typically developing, children who were late to talk and children on the autism spectrum. The goal of the study was to look at early word learning using a variety of methods ranging from direct vocabulary testing to tracking a child's eye movements while listening to words. Results indicated that late-talking toddlers recognized familiar words less accurately and more slowly than typical peers during an initial period in which spoken targets were presented. These findings support further investigation into the nature of comprehension in late talkers, as subtle deficits in processing may ultimately be predictive of later language difficulties.


Language Intervention Research Study: More Than Words

This intervention study was based on More Than Words: The Hanen Program for Parents of Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (Sussman, 1999), and involved parent education and language intervention for children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and their families.

This research project was designed to provide parents with a set of practical tools that could be used during everyday routines and activities to enhance language and communication development in young children with ASD. The project offered an adapted version of More Than Words, a program developed by the Hanen Centre in Toronto, Canada (www.hanen.org).

More Than Words is a family-centered intervention program based on the perspective that young children's communication and language skills are learned best within the context of social interactions with parents. Children with autism have certain behavioral characteristics that make social interaction challenging for them and may affect the ways in which they learn to speak. This research project was designed to teach parents ways in which they can interact and talk to their children so that parent language is easier for young children with autism to process, understand and learn from.

Parents were taught to increase their verbal responsiveness in the context of a short-term language intervention that included group parent education sessions, as well as individual and small-group coaching sessions of parent–child play interactions. Parents in the treatment group increased their use of comments that: described their child's focus of attention; interpreted or expanded child communication acts; and prompted child communication. Preliminary treatment effects were also noted in children's prompted and spontaneous communication. These results support the use of parent-mediated interventions targeting verbal responsiveness to facilitate language development and communication in young children with autism.


Early Language Learning Project

The Early Language Learning Project (conducted in collaboration with Dr. Julia Evans and Dr. Robin Chapman) is focused on examining linguistic processing abilities of toddlers with late onset of language development compared to those with typical patterns of language acquisition. In this longitudinal project we are investigating variables that predict language outcomes at kindergarten and assessing links between early limitations in linguistic processing capacity and subsequent diagnosis of SLI. This project is funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIDCD). Supplemental funding for this project has also supported an investigation of dialectal characteristics of African American toddlers, based on spontaneous language samples, such that typical dialect usage can ultimately be compared to patterns observed in early language delay.

Project Outcomes:

  • The MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory (MCDI), a parent report measure of early vocabulary and grammar skills, was found to be useful in characterizing the language skills of late-talking toddlers with specific language delay when compared to other language assessment tests administered directly to the child.
  • At 2 1/2 years, late talkers were less likely that a group of younger children with the same vocabulary level (16-month-olds) to combine words into short 'sentences.' This suggests that late talkers have delayed onset of sentence structure development with the same vocabulary building blocks as the younger children with age-expected language skills.
  • On the "picnic task" which focused on the ability to learn new words at 2 1/2 years of age, late talkers were significantly poorer than typical talkers at producing novel words. Further, toddlers with typical language skills seemed to be sensitive to the resemblance of novel words to real words, but late talkers as a group were not.
  • Toddlers' ability to learn new words on the picnic task at 2 1/2 years was a predictor of their grammatical skills at 3 1/2 years of age.
  • At 2 1/2 years, there are few differences in the production of non-standard forms (e.g., "He go home" for "He is going home") by toddlers from Standard American English (SAE) and African American English (AAE) speaking backgrounds. However, by 3 1/2 years of age these toddlers differ in the number and frequency of non-standard forms produces and adult listeners who are familiar with both dialects can distinguish between child speakers from these different linguistic backgrounds.
  • Over time, children identified as late talkers had similar patterns of growth in vocabulary and grammar as children without language delays, even though the late talkers had reduced levels of skills. These late talkers formed two distinct groups based on vocabulary and grammar skills: one group who caught up to the group of children with typical language skills ("late bloomers") and one group who continued to show delays.
  • The vast majority of late-talking toddlers had good language outcomes at kindergarten. Only 10% displayed language problems that qualified them for a clinical diagnosis of language impairment at 5 1/2 years of age. As a group, however, those children who had initially been late talkers continued to be less highly skilled in language areas at kindergarten age than children with typical early developmental profiles.
  • Three measurements given at 2 1/2 years which examine language production (MCDI, Preschool Language Scale-3, and picnic task) significantly predicted expressive language abilities at 5 1/5 years. The combined use of these three measures may be helpful clinically to predict which toddlers with language delay are likely to catch up on their own and which are likely to have persistent language problems.

Midwest Collaboration on SLI

Susan Ellis Weismer is an investigator on the Midwest Collaboration on Specific Language Impairment, an NIH-funded clinical research center (P50 grant) directed by J. Bruce Tomblin at the University of Iowa. The clinical research center consists of a group of researchers from various universities who are conducting an epidemiologic, longitudinal investigation of language impairment in school-age children and adolescents. This research currently focuses on working memory and language processing skills in adolescents with spoken language disorders and reading disabilities.

  • Project 2: Processing Abilities in Children with Specific Language Impairment
    This investigation involves a continuation of a longitudinal, epidemiologic study of developmental language impairment, the Midwest Collaboration on Child Language Impairment (Director: J.B. Tomblin, University of Iowa). The aim of this subcontract for Project 2 is to evaluate a limited processing capacity account of oral language impairment in adolescents who have a history of specific language impairment (SLI). Performance on various processing measures is being assessed in 8th and 10th grades for children with typical spoken language abilities, specific language impairment (SLI) and nonspecific language impairment (NLI). Data from these same children during the elementary school period is being used to determine the stability of processing abilities and the degree to which the children's earlier performance on processing tasks predicts later language abilities. A new direction of research that has been undertaken in this project entails a functional neuroimaging study; findings from this study are being used, along with behavioral data, to more thoroughly assess the claim that processing capacity limitations play a role in developmental language disorder.
  • Project 3: Processing Abilities in Children with Reading Disabilities
    The aim of this subcontract for Project 3 is to evaluate the role of limitations in processing capacity in children with reading disabilities by examining the relation between working memory capacity, oral language processing, and reading abilities. Performance on various linguistic and spatial working memory measures is being assessed in 8th and 10th grades for poor readers and good readers, with children with reading comprehension deficits being considered separately from those with decoding difficulties. Data from these same children during the elementary school period will be used to determine the degree to which the children's earlier performance on processing tasks can predict later reading abilities.