Father holding child on a beach
Research Summary

Fathers’ Verbal Responsiveness More Impactful Than Originally Thought on Language Skills of Children With ASD

Valerie Henderson and Dr. Jonathan Lai | York University
The study examined verbal responsiveness in children, and the impact of mother and father engagement. Parent engagement in play with their child, was videotaped and analyzed.

What you need to know?

The language skills of a child with ASD are influenced by their father’s verbal responsiveness,
perhaps more than their mother’s. These findings could open the door to further research with
fathers and their effect on the communication skills of children with ASD, and eventually shape
the way they are encouraged to interact and communicate in order to aid language

What is this research about?

Parental verbal responsiveness is important in developing the social communication skills of a
child with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). At the same time, there are differences in
communication style between parents; fathers tend to use more complex and directive language
than mothers. For example, fathers are more likely to pose “wh” questions rather than simpler
“yes/no” questions more typical of mothers. This study examined the relationships between the
auditory comprehension (the ability to understand what they hear) and expressive
communication of children with ASD and the verbal responsiveness of both their mothers and
fathers, as well as differences between mother and father verbal responsiveness.

What did the researchers do?

The researchers conducted the study using 12 boys and four girls with ASD and their mothers
and fathers. The children were approximately 3-6 years old and lived with their biological
parents consistently since birth. Each parent, in separate sessions, was given toys and
instructed to engage in typical play with their child. Researchers videotaped and analyzed both
parents' verbal interaction with the child and the child’s language skills, using a measurement
tool of the child’s auditory comprehension and expressive communication. The number of “child
leads” – where a child would initiate touching a toy or look at a person or toy – was also

What did the researchers find?

The researchers had three main findings. Firstly, they observed more child leads in sessions
with the mothers than the fathers. The researchers thought this could be explained by a father’s
greater tendency to actively redirect their child’s attention. Secondly, mothers were more
verbally responsive than fathers – a key difference in verbal responsiveness between parents.
Lastly, and most noteworthy, they found a greater association between father verbal
responsiveness and child language skills than was found for mothers when differences in the
cognitive skills of the children were accounted for. Therefore, despite the second finding
showing lower levels of verbal responsiveness than mothers, a father’s verbal responsiveness is
an important contributor to a child’s language skills. Indeed, fathers play a bigger role than
originally thought in the language development of their child with ASD.

How can you use this research?

A father’s role should also be considered, along with mother’s, in the development of
communication strategies for children with ASD. The results do not imply that fathers should
mimic a mother’s communication style or vice versa. Rather, strategies should be developed
with mother and father differences in mind. Further research with larger sample sizes is needed
to confirm these findings.

About the Researchers

Michelle Flippin (PhD) is an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island in the
Department of Communicative Disorders. Linda R. Watson (EdD) works at the University of
North Carolina School of Medicine as a professor in the Department of Allied Health Sciences


Flippin, M. & Watson, L. R. (2015). Fathers’ and Mothers’ verbal responsiveness and the
language skills of young children with autism spectrum disorder. American Journal of Speech-
Language Pathology, 24(3), 400-410
Key words
Autism Spectrum Disorder, parental differences, verbal responsiveness, language skills,
communication, fathers

This research summary was written by Valerie Henderson and Dr. Jonathan Lai for the Chair in
Autism Spectrum Disorders Treatment and Care Research. This research summary, along with
other summaries, can be found on our blog and at asdmentalhealth.ca/research-summaries.
Reproduced with the permission of Dr. Jonathan Weiss (York University). This research
summary was developed with funding from the Chair in ASD Treatment and Care Research.
The Chair was funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research in partnership with Autism
Speaks Canada, the Canadian Autism Spectrum Disorders Alliance, Health Canada, Kids Brain
Health Network (formerly NeuroDevNet) and the Sinneave Family Foundation. This information
appeared originally in the Autism Mental Health Blog (https://asdmentalhealth.blog.yorku.ca).

Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash

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