Document Type


Date of Degree

Summer 2010

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Speech and Hearing Science

First Advisor

McGregor, Karla K

First Committee Member

Tomblin, Bruce

Second Committee Member

Owen, Amanda

Third Committee Member

Samuelson, Larissa

Fourth Committee Member

Gros-Louis, Julie


Attention impairments are well documented in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Under associative accounts of early word learning, the attention impairments in children with ASD preclude them from developing effective learning strategies. In this study we examined whether children with ASD utilize the same attention cues for learning as their unaffected receptive-vocabulary mates. In a word-learning task, we asked: 1) whether hearing novel and attention-grabbing words cued children to shift their attention to the speaker, and 2) whether the children followed the gaze of the speaker to determine the speaker's focus of attention. We taught novel words in two conditions. One condition provided maximal social-attention scaffolding; the examiner followed the focus of the child's attention. The other was less scaffolded; the examiner directed the child's attention to the target using eye gaze. We manipulated the number of objects present during teaching, two versus four, to examine the effect of non-social attention scaffolding with scaffolding here defined as a reduction in distractions.

Fifteen-children with ASD (ages 36-91 months) were matched to fifteen unaffected children (ages 16-92 months) on the basis of receptive vocabulary (RVM group). The ASD group's performance differed from the RVM group's performance on one measure: shifting attention to the speaker upon hearing a novel or attention-grabbing word on the initial trial. On all other measures, the ASD group's performance did not significantly differ from the RVM group's performance. Although there was not a significant effect of condition, closer analysis revealed that in the RVM and ASD groups, only the consistent-gaze followers' performed better than chance on the word-learning tasks. We hypothesize that, when all else is equal, providing a label does not make the target distinct enough to support word-referent pairings for children who are not consistently attending to the speaker. Overall, the ASD group demonstrated greater within group variability in their attention than the RVM group. Gaze following was variable across (and within) the ASD group. The within subject variability suggests some children with ASD are slow to appreciate eye gaze cues in unfamiliar contexts.


attention, autism, word learning


x, 77 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 67-77).


Copyright 2010 Allison Frances Bean