We are a team of researchers located at the MGH Institute of Health Professions (MGH IHP) in Boston, MA. We are completing a study about speech therapy treatment for children with the motor speech disorder childhood apraxia of speech and autism. Instead of being primarily drill-based, therapy will be embedded in a social, play-based context to provide ecologically valid feedback and help children generalize their skills as much as possible.
What are the goals of the study?
The main aim of this study is to test whether treatment for the motor speech disorder childhood apraxia of speech, appropriately modified for minimally verbal autistic children, does in fact improve speech production in minimally verbal children with both conditions.
What will happen during the visit or online?
Prospective participants will be assessed in our lab in Charlestown with a variety of measures that document their speech, language, social, and nonverbal IQ skills. During the speech tasks only (estimated to last approximately 30 minutes), children will wear reflective markers, 2-3 millimeters in size, on their faces. Our multiple camera system will track the movements of these markers as children attempt to repeat a series of syllables and simple words. Baseline assessments are conservatively estimated to last approximately 4 hours, scheduled as two 2-hour visits. All assessments will be audio- and videotaped for later analysis.
During the baseline visits, children’s parents will also be asked to complete a series of questionnaires that document demographics, developmental history, and current levels of community functioning.
After analysis of baseline data (documenting that participants meet criteria for ASD, minimally verbal status, and CAS), children who meet inclusion criteria will be invited to receive treatment. A set of 6 one- or two-syllable words will be selected for each child, identified from their baseline tests to specifically involve the speech movements that are found to be disordered in their speech (i.e., stimuli will consist of words that the child can attempt to say but which are not pronounced perfectly).
Treatment will consist of 15 hour-long sessions over 3 weeks and may take place in our lab or at a child’s home or school, and will be video- and audio-recorded for later analysis.
During treatment sessions, children will practice each target multiple times, divided into separate practice blocks and interspersed with practice on the other targets. A “scaffolding” hierarchy will be employed to help children learn the correct speech movements for each target. Specific scaffolding activities that the therapist will provide include (1) producing the target slowly, (2) producing it in unison with the therapist, (3) gradually fading out this assistance as the child learns to produce the targets correctly on their own, and (4) providing tactile or visual cues to help children remember the correct oral movements for each target.
Practice will occur in a naturalistic, developmentally-informed framework, which involves embedding speech tasks within social interactions organized around play or social activities that are matched to the child’s developmental level and that incorporate the child’s target words. For example, if a child has difficulty saying the consonant /k/, the word “cookie” might be selected as a target. This word could be practiced during an activity where therapist and child pretend to feed a stuffed animal cookies or where they actually decorate and eat cookies as a snack. The aim is for children to learn correct speech production at the same time that they engage in positive and rewarding social interactions that promote skill generalization, rather than for them to simply respond to therapist prompts.
After treatment is completed, children will be invited back to the lab to have their speech production analyzed, using the same procedures as at baseline. They may also re-enroll to receive an additional series of 15 treatment sessions if desired.
For their time, participants will receive $50 for completion of the baseline testing and $100 upon completion of the post-treatment testing. Parking compensation will be provided for each visit to our Charlestown lab location.
How will this help families?
In our research, we are interested in understanding why many children with autism don’t learn to talk on their own. Our ultimate goal is to improve communication outcomes for children at risk for being minimally verbal. In this study, participants will be contributing to the advancement and development of evidence-based speech treatment approaches for children with autism and childhood apraxia of speech.