Spoken Communication Lab

The goal of the Spoken Communication Lab is to understand why children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) have problems learning to talk, so that through a program of evidence-based research on early detection and targeted intervention we can make sure that no child with autism is left without a voice.

Deficits in social communication are one of the core features defining the condition. Children with ASD are almost universally delayed in acquiring spoken language. About 25% of children with autism never learn to speak. Others may achieve language by the time they reach adulthood, but will continue to show severe difficulties with pragmatics in social situations, and will often have noticeable differences in voice quality that may impact their ability to find a job and be accepted in their community.

Delays and deviations in speech and language acquisition begin in the first year of life. One of the main reasons parents of children with autism first seek help in our clinic is because their child is not speaking properly by the time they reach their first birthday. At this age, most typically developing children would already be babbling and producing their first words, but the children we care for have often already fallen behind.

Language ability in early childhood is currently the best predictor we have for long-term outcome in autism in adulthood. Because speech is so important for so many aspects of a child's normal learning and development, children with ASD who cannot talk do very badly later on. A child with autism who cannot speak by the time they are two years old risks needing lifelong care, at great emotional cost to their families and enormous financial cost to public health.

For all of these reasons, research in our lab focuses on studying early vocal development in children from birth to three years and beyond. Using advances in science, engineering and technology, we aim to promote new methods for earlier detection and better treatment of speech and language delays in infancy, which we know is the key to improving outcome. As part of an NIH-funded Autism Center of Excellence, and through academic partnerships between Children's Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University School of Medicine, we are able to follow hundreds of individual children longitudinally over the first three years of life in the home, our lab, and our clinic.
Thanks to the generous support of our donors, including the Marcus Foundation, the Whitehead Foundation, and the Georgia Research Alliance, we are able to capitalize on state-of-the-art technologies to measure every aspect of a child's behavior that may be relevant to social communication, from the moment they are born and even when they are still in the womb.

At the Marcus Autism Center, we believe that deficits in spoken language are not an inevitable consequence of autism. If we only understood the nature of the social impairment that is the true underlying feature of the condition, and the many mechanisms by which social interaction drives vocal development in infancy, we could prevent this problem from happening before it even begins to appear.

Our aim is to change the lives of the children we serve by giving them back the power of speech, or, better still, by making sure through the care we provide that they are never deprived of a voice at all.