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Statistical word learning in children with autism spectrum disorder and specific language impairment

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Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Published online on


Background Word learning is an important component of language development that influences child outcomes across multiple domains. Despite the importance of word knowledge, word‐learning mechanisms are poorly understood in children with specific language impairment (SLI) and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). This study examined underlying mechanisms of word learning, specifically, statistical learning and fast‐mapping, in school‐aged children with typical and atypical development. Methods Statistical learning was assessed through a word segmentation task and fast‐mapping was examined in an object‐label association task. We also examined children's ability to map meaning onto newly segmented words in a third task that combined exposure to an artificial language and a fast‐mapping task. Results Children with SLI had poorer performance on the word segmentation and fast‐mapping tasks relative to the typically developing and ASD groups, who did not differ from one another. However, when children with SLI were exposed to an artificial language with phonemes used in the subsequent fast‐mapping task, they successfully learned more words than in the isolated fast‐mapping task. There was some evidence that word segmentation abilities are associated with word learning in school‐aged children with typical development and ASD, but not SLI. Follow‐up analyses also examined performance in children with ASD who did and did not have a language impairment. Children with ASD with language impairment evidenced intact statistical learning abilities, but subtle weaknesses in fast‐mapping abilities. Conclusions As the Procedural Deficit Hypothesis (PDH) predicts, children with SLI have impairments in statistical learning. However, children with SLI also have impairments in fast‐mapping. Nonetheless, they are able to take advantage of additional phonological exposure to boost subsequent word‐learning performance. In contrast to the PDH, children with ASD appear to have intact statistical learning, regardless of language status; however, fast‐mapping abilities differ according to broader language skills.