Gesture Use between Parents and Children with Autism

Dr Shelley Hyman

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterised by a core deficit in communication including delayed or lack of spoken language, impairments in initiating and sustaining a conversation and repetitive use of language.

Nonverbal communication such as gestures may be a contributing factor the autistic symptoms. Studies have found that children who were diagnosed later in life produced fewer gestures during conversation and had delays in both comprehension and production of phases (Mitchell et al., 2006).

Speech and gesture appear to be independent at first but then merge together early in language development. Therefore deficits in gestures may be due to the difficulty with hand and mouth coordination and impairment in language development.

There are also many parental and family factors involved for example studies have found parents with more children were less verbally open than parents with less children and mothers showed more support with their daughters than their sons.

A study by Medeiros & Winsler (2014) aims to look at gesture use in children with ASD and whether there was a relationship with a number of family factors such as parental education and income. They also explored the extent to which parent and child gestures are associated to typically developing children and children with ASD.

Typically developing children and those with ASD were asked to do a few problem-solving tasks, once with the parent and again by themselves.

The number of gestures that the child or parents made was measured as well as some demographic information about their family. Medeiros & Winsler (2014) found that children with ASD had poor receptive language skills and were less responsive and gestured less with their parents than typically developing children.

In fact, children with ASD show lower rates of deictic gestures (eg point to objects) and conventional gestures (eg nodding head, shrugging shoulders).

Interestingly, parents gestured just as often as their child, irrespective of whether the child was typically developing or diagnosed with ASD. These results suggest that improving gesture use in children with ASD is recommended as part of an intervention.

Alanna Wong


  • Medeiros, K., & Winsler, A. (2014). Parent-child gesture use during problem solving in autistic spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorder, 44, 1946-1958.
  • Mitchell, S., Brian, J., Zwaigenbaum, L., Roberts, W., Szatmari, P., Smith, L., et al. (2006). Early language and communication development of infants later diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics, 27, 69-78.
Dr Shelley Hyman

About Dr Shelley Hyman

Senior Clinical Neuropsychologist. BSc (psychol) Hons, MClinNeuropsych, PhD (Med) MAPS CCN. Founder and director of the centre that was founded in 2006.