Undergraduate research project goes the distance

Cassidy VanZuiden
Cassidy VanZuiden, center, during an NIU honors ceremony in 2018.

Cassidy VanZuiden’s Undergraduate Research and Artistry Day (URAD) project — exploring why children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) echo or parody speech — grew into a national award-winning project and then a published research paper in a prestigious journal.

VanZuiden, who graduated from NIU with a B.S. in Communicative Disorders in 2018, was the recipient of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) PROGENY Award, given to highlight her undergraduate research project titled, “Play on Words: Assessing the Influence of Language Context on Repetitive Speech in Autism Spectrum Disorder.”

After receiving the award, she and her faculty mentor — Allison Gladfelter, assistant professor of speech-language pathology at NIU — worked together to submit the research to the American Journal of Speech-Language Pathology. It was published in their February 2020 issue.

The VanZuiden and Gladfelter study investigated what contributing factors influence repetitive speech in children with ASD.

“Children with autism repeat back what someone says to them. Everyone knows that kids with autism do this, but no one really knows what factors cause a child to do it. Every child goes through a phase where they echo others, but kids with autism tend to do it more often and later into their development,” Gladfelter said.

Allison Gladfelter
Allison Gladfelter

For their project, they studied school-age children in two contexts: storytelling and play. The children were evaluated for several types of repetitive speech, called echolalia. For the storytelling portion, children were asked to tell a story from a wordless picture book or a cartoon to the researcher. During the play portion, the children played with a toy farm set and their speech and vocalizations were tracked. Their results showed the children with autism produced lower rates of repetitive speech during the storytelling context than the play-based context.

“We don’t know why for sure. One possible reason could be because the children used echolalia as a way to compensate for weaker social communication skills during the play-based task,” Gladfelter said.

The study results showed that immediate echolalia use was not related to standardized measures of social skills, vocabulary or nonverbal IQ scores. These findings offer valuable insights into better understanding repetitive speech use in children with ASD. Children without ASD also exhibit echolalia; however, they typically develop more conversational speech patterns and productive responses as they develop.

Gladfelter said this study is important because there is no genetic test for autism; the diagnosis is based on behavior. Observing echolalia while a child is at play can provide another behavioral clue for an ASD diagnosis. The next steps would be replicating the study and involving more participants, VanZuiden said.

“We would like to further explore ways speech pathologists can help children who use a lot of echolalia,” she added. VanZuiden is completing her master’s degree in speech-language pathology at the University of Memphis.

Gladfelter continues her research at NIU and co-facilitates the Autism Caregivers Group, a group of professors with interests in supporting families of those with ASD. She adds that she is grateful to the families of the children in the studies for their research support.

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