Research Projects

I am currently involved in two major research areas.  One focuses on the development of  signals of communication and the other focuses on social communication deficits exhibited by school-age children. The research examining signals of communication involves infants with motor impairments, infants developing typically, and young adults who are severely/profoundly disabled.  The focus is on nonverbal signals of communication, including gestures, eye gaze and other observable/idiosyncratic behaviors.  The social communication research involves school-age children with an array of impairments, although the primary work has been conducted with children who have been prenatally exposed to alcohol.

Research Area and Projects Content Collaborators Grant Support
 Signals of Communication

This research area  focuses on nonverbal and early verbal signals of communication.  The research has two parts:

1. Early signals of communication produced by babies (with and without impairments), with an emphasis on gestures and eye gaze as they lead to first word productions. 

2.  Nonconventional forms of communication produced by individuals with severe/profound developmental disabilities.  The emphasis here is on use of alternative strategies to communicate, including switch use and overt behaviors (smiles, gestures, eye gaze, body movement, and other idiosyncratic behaviors) to regulate the context. 

A major thrust of this research has examined the effectiveness of intervention designed to teach babies between 12-20 months early signals of communication, including looking at objects of interest (dyadic eye gaze), reaching towards objects of interest, and looking back and forth between an adult and objects of interest (triadic eye gaze). We have successfully taught babies with moderate to severe physical disabilities how to use these signals to communicate with their parents. We have also completed a parent training study, where we taught parents how to teach their children these signals. You can find out more about this research by reading the following publications:

Pinder, G.L., Olswang, L.B., & Coggins, K. (1993). The development of communicative intent in a physically disabled child. Infant-Toddler Intervention, 3, 1-17.

Pinder, G.L., & Olswang, L.B. (1995). Development of communicative intent in young children with cerebral palsy: A treatment efficacy study. Infant-Toddler Intervention, 5, 51-69.

Olswang, L.B. & Pinder, G.L. (1995). Preverbal functional communication and the role of object play in children with cerebral palsy. Infant-Toddler Intervention, 5, 277-300.

Olswang, L.B.,  Pinder, G.L., & Hanson, R. (2006).  Communication in young children with motor impairments: teaching caregivers to teach.  Seminars in Speech and Language, 27, 199-214.

Another aspect of this research is examining whether early signals of communication used to regulate the behavior of adults are correlated with emerging language and social skills. We will be tracking the development of dyadic and triadic eye gaze (with and without gestures of reaching/pointing and showing/giving) in relationship to emerging language (as measured by the MacArthur Communicative Development Inventory and mean length of utterance), and social skills (as measured by the Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scale). Babies developing typically will be seen at 7, 11, 18 and 24 months for this research. In addition, we will explore how caregivers' behaviors might shape emerging signals of communication produced by the babies.  Ultimately, we will be applying these data to children with disabilities, with the hopes of designing intervention strategies.

Finally, we have been exploring the nonverbal communication used by young adults with severe/profound disabilities.  These individuals are residents at Fircrest School in Seattle.  Working with Drs. Richard and  Muriel Saunders from the University of Kansas, we have been exploring use of switches (AAC strategies) to activate leisure devices and/or to make social contact.  We are currently exploring other, "unconventional" forms of communication, produced with leisure devices and in social situations. 

To read more about this research, please see: 

Murphy, K. M., Saunders, M. D., Saunders, R. R., & Olswang, L. B. (2004). Effects of ambient stimuli on measures of behavioral state and microswitch use in adults with profound multiple impairments. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 25, 355-270.

Mellstrom, B., Saunders, M., Saunders, R., & Olswang, L. (2005).  Interaction of behavioral state and microswitch use in individuals with profound multiple impairments. Journal of Developmental and Physical Disabilities, 17, 35-53.   

Gay Loyd Pinder, PhD, Children's Therapy Center, Kent, Washington

Patricia Dowden, PhD, UW, Dept. of Speech and Hearing Sciences

Ann Mastergeorge, PhD,  UC-Davis, M.I.N.D. Institute

Richard and Muriel Saunders, PhD, University of Kansas

UW Students: Rebecca Hanson, PhC


University of Washington, Royalty Research Award, 1998-1999

Center for Mind, Brain and Learning, University of Washington 2001-2003

NIH Grant-Communication in MR, University of Kansas, Richard Saunders PI, 2002-2005.

Research Area and Projects Content Collaborators Grant Support
School-Age Research: Social Communication

This research is exploring the social communication of school-age children who demonstrate problems interacting with peers.  Many children with disabilities demonstrate social communication problems, for example, difficulty entering peer groups and negotiating with peers.  We are attempting to determine how children's linguistic skills, social-cognitive knowledge, and processing/executive functioning abilities come together to support appropriate social interactions. We are in the process of completing several studies that are examining the performance of children with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD)  in classroom situations. These studies are allowing us to determine the best ways to measure impairments of social communication. This research is utilizing a variety of standardized and nonstandardized procedures.  We are particularly excited about a new technology that allows us to use handheld data entry devices for recording data in natural contexts.   Professionals can easily enter data via drop down menus as a means of tracking a child's social communication problems during the school day.  We are also conducting research that is exploring intervention strategies for working with these children in everyday contexts. You can find out more about this research program by reading the following publications:

Timler, G. & Olswang, L. (2001). Variable structure/variable performance: caregiver and teacher perspectives on a school-age child with FAS. Journal of Positive Behavioral Intervention, 3, 48-56.

Olswang, L., Coggins, T., & Timler, G. (2001).  Outcome measures for school-age children with social communication problems.  Topics in Language Disorders, 21(4), 50-73.

Coggins, T., Olswang, L., Carmichael Olson, H., & Timler, G. (2003) On becoming socially competent communicators: the challenge for children with fetal alcohol exposure.  L. Abbeduto (ed.)., International Review of Research in Mental Retardation: Language and Communication in Mental Retardation, Vol 27, New York:  Academic Press. 

Beilinson, J., & Olswang, L (2003). Facilitating peer group entry in kindergarteners with deficits in social communication.  Language, Speech, Hearing Services in Schools, 34, 154-166.

Timler, G., Olswang, L., & Coggins, T. (2005). “Do I Know What I need to Do?” A social communication intervention for children with complex clinical profiles. Language, Speech, and Hearing Services In Schools, 36, 73-85.

Olswang, L., Svensson, L., Coggins, T., Beilinson, J., & Donaldson, A. (2006).   Reliability issues and solutions for coding social communication performance in classroom settings. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 49(5), 1058-71.

In addition we are collaborating with parents and professionals to gather important information about the prevalence of social communication deficits among school-age children with a variety of underlying impairments, the characteristics of these children, and the array of problem behaviors they exhibit in the school environment. These collaborative data are being collected via our Social Communication Web site ( This Web site not only serves to collect these data, it provides the visitor with information about our model of social communication, assessment guidelines, and an opportunity to inquire about the social communication of particular children. I hope you will visit this site to obtain a sense of our work, and to participate in our collaborative data collection.

FAS Research Team:
Truman Coggins, PhD., UW, Department of Speech and Hearing Sciences.

Heather Carmichael Olson, PhD., UW, Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences

Susan Astley, PhD.,UW, Epidemiology

Geralyn Timler, PhD. University of Buffalo

Liselotte Svensson, PhD Sweden

Related Research
UW Students: John Thorne

Washington State Association for Retarded Citizens, 1998-1999

University of Washington Alcohol and Drug Abuse Institute, 1999-2000

University of Washington, Tools for Transformation Award, 1999-2001

Centers for Disease Control, 2001-2005

University of Washington, Royalty Research Award, 2002-2005

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