How can we catch early problems in language development?
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It’s a rare parent who hasn’t said to their young child “use your words.” Words — and the clarity they allow us — are essential tools for diffusing frustration and connecting with others.

Which is why University of Waterloo developmental psychologist Daniela O’Neill spent 15 years perfecting a widely-used tool for assessing young children’s ability to use words. Words help children get what they need, share their interests and feelings, and talk about the world around them.

“There are other tools that assess vocabulary and grammar,” says O’Neill. “But I wanted to look at what children can do with language. Can they use it to request things or ask for help? Can they use it to get others to follow directions, for instance to take their turn in a game? Or to make a joke?”

It’s this kind of practical use of language ­— linked to the ability to see an issue from another’s perspective — that children with autism struggle with. It can also show up in those with hearing problems or attention deficit disorders.

Intervention is most effective when begun early — from about 18 to 47 months — so O’Neill focused her assessment tool on this age group. Her Language Use Inventory (LUI) is based on an extensive parent questionnaire, but the results are designed to help professionals identify and diagnose delays in children’s use of language and to give direction for intervention.

LUI was launched commercially in 2009 and is now used by speech pathologists, psychologists, and researchers in countries around the world, including Canada, the U.S., the U.K., Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. Translations into eight languages, including French and Arabic, are underway.

LUI’s wide adoption is thanks in part to its ability not only to pinpoint problems with social communications, but to show when such problems lie outside the typical range. After assessing 3,500 children across Canada, O’Neill created a set of norms for each age group, which allows users to compare a child at any given month of development to a child of the same age.

While O’Neill relished the challenge of crafting questions to give an accurate assessment of pragmatic language skills, what she finds most rewarding is the reaction parents and professionals have to LUI.

“People come up and hug me for making it,” she says.


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