Dissertations, Theses, and Capstone Projects

Date of Degree


Document Type


Degree Name





Valerie Shafer

Subject Categories

Cognition and Perception | Linguistics


ERP, Language Acquisition, ASD


This thesis considers the questions of what is hindering the language development of children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Tomasello’s (2003) theory of language development by use necessitates adequate pattern recognition, intention reading and use for language development. Within these areas there are many variables where language acquisition could become derailed, from basic attention, perception and memory to higher cognitive functions, as well as processing speed and synchronization. Although there is a wide range of language abilities for children on the autism spectrum, the one consistently under developed area is pragmatics. One of the key aspects of pragmatic processing is making observations in the visual domain, while simultaneously processing speech. Research shows atypical and asynchronous audio visual processing for individuals with ASD, but more research is needed on the realtime multimodal processing requirements that are specific to typical language development in order to understand the ways in which atypical or asynchronous processing may affect language development for children with ASD.

The ERP study in this thesis tested the differences in brain responses to photographs paired with related sentences compared to responses to fixation symbols with sentences, as well as photographs with tones. Eight typical children between the ages of six and thirteen participated. An examination of ERPs at frontal and occipital sites to photograph onset resulted in a consistent double peaked response whether or not photographs were followed by sentences or tones. Responses to fixation symbols had a P1 but lacked a P2 response. Brain responses to audio onset had less consistent results across participants, but generally showed a late slow positive wave at occipital sites in conditions where photographs were available to view. On average larger responses were found to sentence onset than to tone onset.

These findings suggested that typical children’s brain responses show an effect of voluntary attention to photographs, which is enhanced when prompted by the introduction of a related sentence. The more we understand about intermodal linguistic processing for typically developing children, the more we will be able to discover what has gone awry in language acquisition for children on the autism spectrum.