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New Study Sheds Light on Kids With Autism

Recent research shows “talk challenges” and points to a need for support.

Key points

  • Kids with autism need social support—and new research points to an opportunity to help.
  • A recent study finds that kids with autism didn't change their talk patterns to match their partners' interest levels.
  • Behavioral methods can support kids with autism in some ways, but they don't get at the subtle dynamics of conversation.
 RODNAE Productions/Pexels
Social communication is a key challenge for kids with autism.
Source: RODNAE Productions/Pexels

It’s well-known that most kids with autism have trouble socializing. That’s a hallmark of the disorder. And there have been numerous approaches designed over the years to help them with social communication. These include everything from “social stories,” where we lay out “scripts” for how people typically communicate, to lunch groups where they’re paired with neurotypical peers. But a study out recently in Autism Research sheds new light on their needs.

As a speech-language pathologist, I’ve found a range of approaches helpful to different degrees, based on the child and the context. What’s more, I’ve found aspects of these approaches helpful for kids without autism as well. It’s not because a child is labeled “typical” that they know intuitively how to join a new group at lunch or how to navigate a new internship. With my own children, ages 10 and 5, I’ve noticed that talking about the expectations of any new situation can help avert an upset.

But where many approaches for kids with autism fall short, in my opinion, is neglecting to help them notice and respond to the people in front of them. Especially behavioral methods, such as ABA, or applied behavioral analysis, focus on (as the name suggests) rewarding some behaviors and not others. While this approach may be effective in some cases, it has its limits. Specifically, doesn’t pay much attention to the “why” behind children’s actions, or the beliefs behind their behaviors.

 Artem Podez/Pexels
Understanding the child behind the behaviors is critical.
Source: Artem Podez/Pexels

We might find, as parents, clinicians, caregivers, or teachers, that ABA “works,” in terms of changing specific behaviors. But it’s far harder to tell if these changes generalize. Are kids really learning to communicate generally, or mostly in scripted situations? This approach is also controversial at a deeper level. It comes from the B.F. Skinner school of behaviorism, based on changing the behaviors of pigeons, rats, and other creatures. In this approach, we may tend to focus more on children's “inputs” and “outputs,” rather than on the complexity of their beliefs and thoughts.

Part of the issue with knowing whether ABA works is that there haven’t been enough high-quality studies. The U.S. Department of Education’s What Works Clearinghouse, which evaluates the quality of studies, found that only 1 of 58 studies of the ABA model met its criteria, and another one met them with reservations. According to those two studies, ABA therapy can lead to small improvements in several areas, including cognitive development, communication, and social skills. But neither of these studies looked at children’s literacy skills, or math, or their physical well-being.

One recent study published in Autism Research offers insight into a different way of thinking about helping kids with autism. It has to do with the way children with autism notice and respond to their partners’ conversational signals. Think about being at a cocktail party. We often change our behavior when we see that the person in front of us seems either interested or bored. If someone seems interested, we might lean in, talk louder, or talk more—but if they seem bored, we might get quieter or even walk away. We don’t often think about teaching this particular skill—but it may be equally or more important than the ones we now focus on.

What the Study Showed

As researchers at La Salle University working with the Center for Autism Research (CAR) at Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP) found, neurotypical kids adapted to a partner’s conversational style, becoming more talkative when their partner seemed interested and less talkative when the partner seemed bored. The kids diagnosed with autism didn’t shift their behavior. They were equally talkative whether their partners seemed interested or bored. The study involved 98 participants between the ages of 7 and 17; 48 were diagnosed with autism and 50 were neurotypical.

This study, the first of its kind, has intriguing implications for helping kids with autism socialize. Around 40 percent of kids with autism don’t communicate verbally, but for those who do, learning to adjust their talk could be critical to their social success. This measure could also help assess the progress of therapy, as Meredith Cola and the other study authors argue.

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When kids are responsive to others' signals, they have easier social success.
Source: Pexels, Cottonbro

What’s the Takeaway?

Even if ABA-type methods “work”—and I have no doubt they do, in some ways, and for some kids—there’s still a great need for a broader range of approaches. Even now, ABA is far from the only thing out there. There are, among others, therapies including Floor Time therapy and other play-based therapies, picture communication systems, and many more.

But this new study, and hopefully others to come, offers fresh insight in asking: What specific social skills do kids with autism most need?

There is clearly a whole range of needs for kids on the autism spectrum. It’s called a spectrum for a reason. Some kids may indeed benefit most from a behavioral approach, or from learning picture communication systems. But I’m hopeful that research like this can help us make sense of the needs of some kids with autism and support their social skills. We shouldn’t think that this will work for every child. But what will work is seeing each child as fully as possible, and taking time, as much as we can, to check in.


Cola et al, "Conversational adaptation in children and teens with autism: Differences in talkativeness across contexts." Autism Res. Online February 24, 2022. DOI: 10.1002/aur.2693.