Summary of Research Paper: Using Full Language with a Child with Autism, Emerson and Dearden

A plate of red jelly

I was delighted to hear how well a little client of mine had done with a new activity (a large container of jelly!) at nursery this week, although I was disappointed that his teacher had predicted he wouldn’t be able to access it.

I then read this journal article: The effect of using ‘full’ language when working with a child with autism: Adopting the ‘least dangerous assumption’ by Anne Emerson and Jackie Dearden, Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 29 (2), 2013. This research paper resonated with me because it discussed the implications of underestimating a child’s ability.

The researchers report that the Minimal Speech Approach (MSA) is recommended  in the UK Government guidance on teaching pupils with autism (Department for Education and Skills, 2002: 18) This approach involves using single words or two word phrases alongside gestures and visual supports.

This single case study describes work with Jack, who had been exposed to the MSA approach at his special school. The researchers investigated the effectiveness of a different way of working, they suggest: “it is ‘less dangerous’ to start by assuming understanding and adjusting language when comprehension difficulties become apparent.”

An Alternative to the Minimal Speech Approach

The researchers describe the specific characteristics of the intervention as follows, (I quote from their paper):

• speaking in complete phrases and using a range of vocabulary;
• speaking slowly and quietly, and waiting longer than might typically be expected for the pupil to respond;
• materials and resources to promote interest, interaction and fine motor skills (including pointing);
• initial focus on activities where there was no ‘correct’ answer so that the student could not fail;
an attitude of expectation that the pupil would be able to respond;
• close observation and commenting on pupil responses;
• a willingness to take risks by introducing complex tasks and discovering the extent to which individuals could manage them whilst ensuring success through scaffolding the learning task;
• literacy activities including reading and spelling accuracy tasks such as matching words and pictures and spelling activities;
• reading comprehension tasks.

What a wonderfully encouraging set of principles.

Results of the Intervention

The intervention was carried out during 32 sessions, that lasted between 20 and 30 minutes, over 20 months. Before the intervention teaching staff were using instructions with one information carrying word, after the intervention they reported that Jack was able to understand instructions with three information carrying words. The researchers reported that Jack became more motivated to initiate communication, finding creative ways of getting his message across. The intervention revealed that Jack enjoyed books, was able to match words and pictures, spell words, and sequence words into sentences.

In the discussion Emerson and Dearden state:

Following increased adult expectations, exposure to full language and literacy tasks, Jack demonstrated his ability to respond to more complex questions. Therefore by increasing his opportunities and reasons to communicate, the under-estimation of his cognitive abilities and literacy skill became evident. We contest that he had the means (ability to point) and cognitive ability to follow instructions prior to our intervention but was not being given the opportunity to demonstrate these as he was dependent on adult choice of activity.

The authors describe the teaching staff at Jack’s school as: “initially very sceptical about the approach.” However, over time teaching staff were able to identify that Jack could read, and observe other benefits to using more complicated language.

Reading this paper reminded me that by oversimplifying our language we are underestimating our clients, and limiting their progress. We must incorporate the principles outlined above and expose our clients to a range of interesting experiences.  This is especially important when the children aren’t able to provide such clear evidence as Jack was, of their abilities.


Photo of jelly by Gordon McLean.