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Seminar Addresses Language, Developmental Disorders in Children

By Sharon Ricks

It starts slowly. You may hear sounds like "ba ba ba" or "da da da" repeated over and over. Eventually, the babbling becomes jargon, a sort of nonsense speech that mimics the tone and rhythm of human speech. Then one day it happens. A word is uttered. For most parents, it's a magical moment, but for parents of children with language and developmental disorders, the moment may be delayed or never come at all.

Recently, three researchers participated in "Developmental Disorders and Language," the latest symposium in the New Perspectives in Language Research Series hosted by five NIH institutes. The symposium focused on children who are deaf and children with autism, William's syndrome, and Specific Language Impairment.

Dr. Ursula Bellugi is a leader in American Sign Language (ASL) research and research on children with William's syndrome (WS). At the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, Calif., she is working to enhance understanding of the neurobiology of language. Results of her research show that brain organization for language in children who are deaf and communicate with their deaf parents using ASL is the same as it is in hearing children. She also found that those children who are native signers develop ASL on a similar schedule as hearing children develop English, but that the children who are deaf are surprisingly better with image rotation tasks and parsing, remembering and analyzing movement, aspects of spatial cognition. These studies help us understand the principles of organization of the brain for language and other higher cognitive functions.

Dr. Ursula Bellugi

Bellugi also studies children with WS, a disorder that affects 1 in 20,000 newborns. WS is characterized by medical and developmental problems involving the heart, kidneys, facial features and unusual language development. In her research, Bellugi compared language skills of children with WS to those of children with Down syndrome (DS). She found that although children with WS and DS are equally delayed in first words, later, as syntax develops, children with WS show an advantage over those with DS across language tasks. Interestingly, in spatial cognition it is reversed, and many children with DS show an advantage over children with WS. This underscores the excitement of current attempts to link genes, neural systems and cognitive functions in development.

Language acquisition is also a challenge for children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI). SLI is a language disability observed in the absence of significant cognitive disorders, hearing loss or brain damage. It affects as many as seven percent of all kindergarten-age children. Dr. Laurence B. Leonard of Purdue University is studying differences in SLI across languages of the world. In all languages studied to date, children with SLI have problems using some type of grammatical morpheme (the smallest unit of meaning). For languages such as English, the most striking problems are seen in morphemes such as past tense (-ed) and third person singular (s) inflections. However, in languages such as Italian, these verb-related morphemes are less problematic. An understanding of the sources of these problems with grammatical morphology and the role these problems play in other areas of language should lead to more appropriate treatments for these children.

Dr. Helen Tager-Flusberg

Dr. Helen Tager-Flusberg of the University of Massachusetts characterized the language deficits in children who have autism and discussed whether there is an overlap with other syndromes. In her research, she matched 60 children with autism to 60 children who were language-disabled to investigate the developmental changes in language and in theory of mind in both groups. Early on, she found no differences in language of children with autism in syntax and grammar when they were compared with other groups of children with mental retardation or language delay. But in later studies she found pragmatic deficits that were specific to the autism population. For example, she found children with autism may have a limited range of speech activity, may not be sensitive to the listener's perspective, and may not talk about mental states, such as "think and believe." Understanding which communication deficits are specific to autism will help in the treatment of these children.

The New Perspectives in Language Seminar Series focuses on the neural and computational bases of language and is hosted by NIDCD, NINDS, NIMH, NICHD and NIA. For more information about the seminar series or to view a video of the seminar, visit NIDCD's web site at

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