Developmental Psyc Yr2                                                                                                                                              Georgina Johnson

What can children suffering from autism and the case of Genie, tell us about how typically developing children acquire language?


            Language acquisition appears to be an automatic human instinct but children still have to learn to use language. Acquiring language is a complicated process and many things can go wrong in learning grammar and spelling rules. There are examples of this occurring in children with autism or in children like Genie who are not introduced to language until after puberty. Children suffering from autism display deficiencies in understanding the actions of others and so are deficient in communication ability, leading to an extreme handicap in acquiring language. Genie was discovered, age thirteen, having been deprived of social interaction in any form for her entire life. She was then fostered and attempts were made to teach her language but she seemed incapable of mastering grammatical rules (Fromkin et al., 1974).


            Autism is a disorder affecting cognition and language development, producing problems with communication, both verbal and non-verbal. It becomes evident during the first three years of life, defined by symptoms of delayed development in language and social behaviour. It has been widely studied but is still not well understood. What is evident is that autistic children do not possess the ability to understand other people, predict their behaviours or interpret their behaviours. Some autistic children do not develop language at all while some gain it slowly, or use only some words and phrases in an unmeaningful way. This does not appear to be due to a lack of the circuitry for language use, it is due to their difficulties in social communication.

            The deficiencies in the speech development of autistic children include the absence or distortion of the use of words and syntax. In autistic children who do learn to use words there may be echolalia observed, with the child repeating phrases over and over. They also tend to use immature grammar structure in their own speech and confuse words that have related meanings or similar sounds easily. Often the way autistic children learn language is likened to how adults learn a foreign language, with great difficulty and no immediate understanding of basic grammar or structure. They have particular problems with pronouns and abstract words which cannot be observed such as ‘friend’.

            In severe cases of autism, the child has little sense of self, being unable to distinguish other people as separate entities. The effects of this extend to aspects of visual contact with other people: the child responds to movement and outline rather than details, meaning gaze tends to be different to a normal child’s. This is one major factor behind their inability to communicate. Another is a lack of ability to copy movement and therefore use of gestures is scarce and similarly the comprehension of other people’s posture, facial expression and other visual signals is impaired. Those children whose language deficit is greatest show the largest evidence of these differences and when playing they show the least imagination, being extremely ritualistic in everything they do. This lack of a sense of self explains why autistic children never grasp personal pronouns and cannot distinguish ‘you’ from ‘I’ or ‘he’ from ‘me’.

            Normal infants show complex turn-taking mechanisms in communication with their mothers and make use of adults’ object attentions and gestures. These early developments are termed ‘proto-conversations’ (Bateson, 1971). For example, most normal children begin to acquire naming words by pointing at objects to get an adult to name it but autistic children do not point. Ordinarily young infants will babble consistently but autistic children do not babble in the same manner. The fact that autistic children fail to develop language suggests that these early non-verbal communication methods are likely to aid language learning in normal children. These kinds of interactions appear to be essential for the child to begin learning language rules, providing infants with a context on which to build an exchange (Bruner,1975), making autistic children severely impaired from an early age.

            Autistic children later in life have described their perceptions of speech, saying “I heard speech as only patterns of sound...I did not understand the use of words” (from Allott, R.) An observer noted that an autistic child had an ‘overwhelming unwillingness to affect the environment’ (Park, 1972, in Allott, R.). This highlights the lack of desire in an autistic child to take part in communication. This desire seems to be required for children to acquire language; normal children show extreme eagerness to learn to speak, especially to acquire naming terms, at an early age. The critical suggestion is that the innate desire for communication that is apparently lacking in these children is essential for the natural development of language.

            In conclusion, observations of children suffering from autism tell us that it is incredibly likely that early communication in any form is necessary for a complete development of language at the normal rate. In particular ‘Proto-conversations’ are most probably used by normal infants to build a model for interactions with language. From autistic children we can also infer that a desire to communicate is a likely prerequisite for being able to acquire language: those children who cannot perceive other people as separate beings cannot comprehend a need for communication while normal children need to immediately try to communicate. However, there is an issue of cause and effect with autistic children in that it could either be a lack of efficient language use that creates the hypersensitive nature of autism sufferers, or it could be the abnormal emotional development which causes the lack of accurate language acquisition.


            Genie represents an extreme case of communication deprivation in much the opposite way to autistic children who have people to communicate with but seem incapable of interacting efficiently. She had never been spoken to and never experienced a social situation. Genie, discovered in 1970 at the age of thirteen and a half in a Los Angeles suburb, had no language use initially but learnt to produce immature, ‘pidgin’-like sentences such as “Mike paint”, “Applesauce buy store”, and “I like elephant eat peanut” (examples from Pinker, 2000). She learnt the basics of language and many words and meanings but she was unable to learn function words and could not create elaborate sentences involving more than one proposition (Curtiss, 1977). Her language usage was compared to that of original Creole slaves who created ‘pidgin’ languages out of the native language which none of them knew. They were incapable of picking up the new grammar but strung words together to convey concepts. The later generations of children imposed a grammar onto the language naturally, seemingly incapable of learning a language with no grammar rules. This emphasises the difference with Genie who was unable to do this.

            With abused children like Genie, there is the possibility that the sensory deprivation and emotional torment experienced during their early years is what has interfered with the ability to learn language. However, a comparable case, that of ‘Chelsea’, is evidence against this suggestion. She was born deaf in a remote town in California and mistakenly diagnosed as retarded. Unlike Genie, however, she grew up relatively normally with her family, although she was shy and didn't use language. It was only when she was 31 her deafness was correctly diagnosed and she was given hearing aids that improved her hearing to near-normal levels. Intensive therapy improved her abilities so that she scored the equivalent of a ten-year-old on intelligence tests, learnt many words, and could read and write but she was unable to use correct syntax. Similarly to Genie she came out with sentences like: “Orange Tim car in”, “Banana the eat”, “The boat sits water on” and “Breakfast eating girl” (Curtiss, 1989 - taken from Pinker, 2000).

            Studying Genie, therefore, shows us that not being exposed to language during the years before puberty severely inhibits the ability to ever learn to use language efficiently. Normal children need exposure to language to develop language in the typical way. Even deaf children are exposed to language in the form of sign language and this means they are able to learn grammar and syntax rules. This suggests the existence of a critical period of language development in which language must be experienced for the child to acquire the comprehension of using universal grammar which appears to be present in every language and is considered to be almost innate knowledge. There have been cases of children from similar situations to Genie who did manage to acquire language normally but they were all found and rehabilitated before puberty. If an individual does not experience language before this point, language development is much more difficult. It has been suggested that the acquisition of normal language is guaranteed for children who are exposed to language up to the age of six, but is ‘steadily compromised from then until puberty, and is rare thereafter.’ (Pinker, 2000).


            Overall conclusions from examining autism and the case of Genie are that children require early exposure to language, at least before puberty, to have a chance of learning to use language correctly. There is a critical period for language development suggested, which would make sense due to the fact that in normal development there would be no need to keep the circuitry for language learning, except for vocabulary, after the details have been acquired. From an evolutionary perspective, any further ability for learning language would be superfluous. Children also seem to need communication with others at an early age using gestures and other non-verbal means for language to be developed at a typical rate, as is shown by observing autism. Overall, a desire for communication and the ability to relate to other people seems to be essential for normal language development.  







Primary References:


Pinker, S. (2000). The Language Instinct. London:Penguin


Allott, R. Autism and the motor theory of language.



Gleitman, H. (1999). Psychology (5th ed.). New York:Norton.


Vasta, R., Haith, M.M., and Miller, S. (1999). Child Psychology: the modern science. (3rd Ed.). New York:Wiley.


Secondary References:


Fromkin, V., Krashen, S., Curtiss, S., Rigler, D., and Rigler, M. (1974). The development of language in Genie: A case of language acquisition beyond the ‘critical period’. Brain and Language 1, 81-107. Cited in Gleitman, H. (1999)


Bruner, J.S. (1975). From communication to language - a psychological perspective. Cognition, 3, 255-278. Cited in Gleitman, H. (1999).


Curtiss, S. (1977). Genie: A linguistic study of a modern-day ‘wild child’. New York:Academic Press. Cited in Gleitman, H. (1999)


Curtiss, S. (1989). The independence and task-specificity of language. In A.Bornstein and J. Bruner (Eds.), Interaction in human development. Hillsdale, N.J.: Erlbaum. Cited in Pinker, S. (2000).




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