In Children with Brain Injuries, Lack of Gesturing During Early Development may Predict Delays in Language Development

For children who suffer a brain injury before or during birth, a lack of gesturing throughout early development may predict problems with language later on.

In children with brain injuries, a lack of gesturing during early development may be a predictor for problems with language delay later on, a new study from the University of Chicago shows.

Lead researcher Eve Sauer, University of Chicago, and her team found that the group of 11 children age 18-30 months, all whom had suffered brain injuries before or during birth, produced just as many gestures as their typically developing peers, but “there was a great deal of variability within the group of children with pre— and perinatal brain lesions,” according to the researchers. Also, five of the 11 children used many fewer gestures, and these five children experienced delayed language development 4 months later.

“At 18 months, it was not possible to reliably distinguish the two groups on the basis of their speech use, only their gesture use,” said Susan Levine, professor of psychology.

The researchers observed the children in their homes three times during one year for 90 minutes, during which time the children went about their typical daily activities with their primary caregivers. These interactions were tape-recorded and included the children’s gestures and their speech.

Susan Goldin—Meadow, professor of psychology, who worked with Sauer on the current study, conducted previous research that showed a strong relationship between gesture and language development in children who had not suffered brain injuries. The new study provides insight into the development of language in this population of children.

“The striking result of our study is that these five children with language delays were the same five who were low gesture producers at 18 months,” said Goldin—Meadow. “Thus early gesture may provide clinicians with a way to identify children who may end up having persistent language difficulties, even before those difficulties appear in the children’s speech,” she added. “Our results also raise the possibility that encouraging children with brain lesions to gesture may prove an effective intervention to prevent language delay.”