CURF 1: About Me & Wh-Question Research

Hi! My name is Sara Westcott. I am a senior at Pitt studying Psychology with a minor in Economics. For the past three years, I have worked in the Infant Communication Lab (ICL) at Pitt under the mentorship of Dr. Jana Iverson. The ICL studies language and motor development in infants at an elevated likelihood for autism spectrum disorder (EL-ASD). The majority of work I have done in the lab has involved language development, specifically coding words and vocalizations in naturalistic parent-child play sessions.

Through my work, I became curious at how the use of parent questions could impact language development in the outcome groups we study. I began to research wh-questions, or questions that are framed with who, what, where, when, why, or how. I found that in neurotypical children, responses to wh-questions are more complex than responses to other questions and their use is related to positive vocabulary and verbal reasoning outcomes. Despite this, little work has looked at how toddlers with ASD respond to wh-questions, and how this might contribute to their language and pragmatic abilities. This is where my project began!

Over the course of my junior year, I carried out the first stages of my project using transcription data from parent-child play sessions with three-year-old children. From the transcribed sessions, I calculated complexity of child utterances in terms of mean length of utterance (MLU), or the average amount of words used in a unit of speech. I found that despite using shorter utterances overall, children with an elevated likelihood for ASD produced more complex responses to parent wh-questions compared to other questions. This finding was super exciting, considering EL-ASD children commonly have difficulties with language. My goal moving forward is to understand more about how wh-questions can encourage more complex responses in the children we study in the ICL.

This semester, I plan to dive deeper into wh-question types. I am looking at whether more abstract wh-questions, such as why and when questions, could contribute to more complex child responses compared to concrete question types, such as who or what. Additionally, I want to look at how frequently parents use the different wh-question types in their everyday interactions with their child, and how this varies among outcome groups.

Working in the ICL has been one of the most influential and enjoyable experiences during my time at Pitt. I am so grateful for the mentorship I have received through every step of my research project. My time in the ICL has been integral in leading me towards my future path, as I plan to become an occupational therapist and hopefully work with kids with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. I hope to continue my involvement in research into graduate school and my future career.

Receiving the CURF has not only allowed me to further explore my research question but is also providing me with the opportunity to share my research with others in the field of child development. This coming March, I will be presenting my research at the Society for Research in Child Development’s 2023 Biennial Meeting hosted in Salt Lake City, Utah. I am incredibly excited to hear feedback on my work from others and learn more about current research in the field!

One Comment Add yours

  1. yasmeengauri says:

    LOVE IT!

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