Finding the right words: A study of language production in autism

Can you beat our robot team in the picture naming game?

We’re looking for kids with autism as well as typically developing kids to take part in our research over the next few weeks.

Language difficulties affect many children with autism. But while there is a lot of research on language comprehension, surprisingly little is known about the production of language. We know there is huge variation: from kids who never speak or come very late to speech, to those who are precocious talkers, despite having difficulties with conversational skills or nonverbal communication. We need to understand the diversity within autism as well as the differences between children with and without autism.

In this study, we are using a simple picture naming test. Children are shown a series of pictures on a computer screen and are asked to name them as quickly as possible.

We’re interested in two main questions: Do some children with autism have particular difficulty choosing between words with similar meanings? And do some children with autism rely more on the right side of their brain for producing language?

The study takes around 90 minutes to complete. We pay $30 for each child.

Optionally, you can also take part in another 30 minute study looking at children’s ability to use pronouns (words like “he”, “you” and “I” that children with autism often struggle to make sense of).

If you’d like your child to take part, please ring Shu Yau (0298502991) or email

Who can take part in the study?

We are currently recruiting children on the autism spectrum, aged 6-14 years, who live in the Sydney area. We include here children with a diagnosis of autism, autism spectrum disorder, Asperger syndrome, or PDD-NOS. Our only criterion is that kids need to have at least some spoken language allowing them to complete the different tasks.

We are also looking for typically developing children aged 4 to 14 to act as a control group.

Where and when would the research take place?

The study will take place in our new labs in the Australian Hearing Hub at Macquarie University. This is 10 minutes walk from the Macquarie University train station. If you’re travelling by car, we can arrange parking for you.

Testing will be done at a time that suits your family – after school, at weekends, or during the day in the school holidays.

What does the study involve?

Children will complete two child-friendly picture naming tasks on the computer. Pictures will flash up and they’ll be asked to name them as quickly as possible. We’ll make an audio recording so we can determine how fast they named the picture and whether they gave a correct response.

In addition, we’ll also test their vocabulary knowledge, their comprehension of sentences, and their reasoning skills.

While your child is doing these tests, we’d give you a brief questionnaire concerning your child’s social and communication skills.

Do we get paid for taking part?

Yes. We pay $30 for each visit to the university to take part in the research.

Are there any risks involved in this research?

There are absolutely no physical risks involved in the study. If your child became tired or anxious, testing would stop immediately.

What happens to the information recorded?

Your child’s scores on the various tests would be coded and stored on a computer with password protection. They would be given an ID number so that nobody outside the research project knows their real name. The information we record during this study will be treated in strictest confidence and we certainly wouldn’t pass on any information about your child to anyone outside the research project without your written permission.

How will I find out about the outcomes of the research?

We will send you a summary of the research project and its outcomes. We will also send you a summary of your child’s scores on the different tests.

What happens if I change my mind?

You are free to withdraw your child from the research study at any time. You don’t have to give a reason and you’ll still get paid.

Who is conducting the research?

The study is led by Dr Jon Brock, an autism researcher in the Department of Cognitive Science at Macquarie University. It is being conducted in collaboration with Dr Paul Sowman, who is an expert in speech production. Research assistants include Shu Yau, Nathan Caruana, and Neha Khetrapal, who are all PhD students at Macquarie.

Would we be asked to take part in other studies?

If you’d like to get involved in other research projects, we can send you information about future studies. But there is absolutely no obligation for you to take part in these.

I’m still interested. What do I do now?

If having got this far, you’re still interested in your child taking part, please phone Shu Yau (PhD student) at 0298502991 or email

The ethical aspects of this study have been approved by the Macquarie University Human Research Ethics Committee.  If you have any complaints or reservations about any ethical aspect of your participation in this research, you may contact the Committee through the Director, Research Ethics (telephone (02) 9850 7854; email  Any complaint you make will be treated in confidence and investigated, and you will be informed of the outcome.