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Investigating the Contributions of Gesture Development to Linguistic Outcomes in Infants and Toddlers with Hearing Loss

Sophie Ambrose

DOI: 10.1044/cred-out-bts-001

Investigating the contributions of gesture to the linguistic outcomes of children with hearing loss

I got my first NIH-funded grant, an R03, and the goal of the grant is to look at gesture development of infants and toddlers with hearing loss. My long-term goal is to look at, to identify precursors to later linguistic success for children with hearing loss, both so that we can identify children with hearing loss earlier that are at risk for later language delays, but also so we can figure out what skills, early on, we can potentially manipulate or influence through intervention so that we can promote optimal outcomes for children with hearing loss.

Gesture development is where my research is right now, because that’s one of the earliest precursors to later language development that we know of for children with normal hearing that we can not only assess, but also that we can potentially shape through intervention. So the idea is that if for children with normal hearing we can look at their gesture development to make predictions about what their later language development will look like, maybe that’s also the case for children with hearing loss. But right now it’s a really understudied area, and there’s a bit of controversy, too, in terms of how much to promote anything that is a visual strategy for a population that has deficits in their auditory skills. So, whether visual communication will serve as a bridge for later language development or whether it might allow children to rely on visual communication to the detriment of their auditory development. I think there are a lot of really exciting potential implications regardless of which way the findings go in terms of the role of gesture development in language for children with hearing loss.

What surprised you most while starting this project?

What has been most exciting and surprising to me is how readily families are willing to participate in some of these research projects. I’ve been very hesitant to ask parents to commit to two and a half years of coming into my lab at regular intervals to let me video tape them playing with their children, and I even scaled back how much I was going to ask them to come in because it seemed like such a burden. But families, even when they don’t receive immediate benefit for them or their child by participating in the research, they really are on board with being able to do something they know will help other children, and I’ve been very surprised and impressed by that.

We also, we ask them to do recordings in their home of their full-day interactions with their child, and when I think about that, I think, oh what a privacy concern, or what if I’m yelling at my child, are they going to judge me I just think I might hesitate a little bit, but these families are just really willing to do their part to contribute to science that might help other children with similar obstacles to what their child is experiencing.

So right now, I have children coming into the lab and instead of having the research assistants handle those visits, I’m going into every visit right now as my grant gets off the ground, and that has been really valuable. In the past three years or so, I haven’t really seen any kids, there are research assistants who are collecting all of the data and my job is to analyze it and write it all up. But now I’m going in and I’m seeing these children.

Part of that, it helps me to ask my questions more appropriately and see what parents’ concerns are in those interactions. But it’s also just exciting to see young children at this period where maybe they’ve just received their cochlear implant or they’re just having their first words or their first steps, and to be able to see as they’re communicating with their parents successfully for the first time. That part is just exciting. And it’s exciting to be able to share with parents these insights that maybe they don’t have. So, I get really excited when I see a child use a gesture to communicate something, but parents don’t always have that insight to know that their child is communicating with them. There are some limitations right now in terms of what I can share with parents because I don’t want to encourage any changes in behavior that wouldn’t have happened otherwise because of my research, but there are other pieces that I feel comfortable discussing with parents, and it’s exciting to be able to talk with them about their child’s changes and to encourage parents. They all are working really hard with their children to communicate, and being able just to say to a parent, Wow, I saw some nice skills in there. You were really talking a lot to your child. Even something that simple that doesn’t necessarily influence what they do, it shapes the way parents feel about themselves and about what’s happening in their lives, and it’s nice to get to be a part of that again.

What’s most exciting about what’s next?

I am excited to finally be asking exactly the questions that I want to ask, and knowing that at multiple points along the way in the next few years, I will be developing knowledge that didn’t exist in the world before. I’m asking questions that didn’t have answers, and now in the next few years, I’ll be able to answer those and to share that knowledge with the world and create something that wasn’t there before.

I’m excited about that, and I’m excited to already be thinking about my R01, which is the next step. I’m already thinking about what those specific aims will be. And I’m excited about that potential, so three years from now or more — or hopefully less — being able to move into an even larger investigation, and potentially one with even more of an intervention focus. To move even more closely to having an immediate impact on outcomes for children with hearing loss.

Sophie Ambrose
Boys Town National Research Hospital

The content of this page is based on selected clips from a video interview conducted at the ASHA National Office.

Copyright © 2015 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association