Visual attentional engagement deficits in children with Specific Language Impairment and their role in real-time language processing
In order to become a proficient user of language, infants must detect temporal cues embedded within the noisy acoustic spectra of ongoing speech by efficient attentional engagement. According to the neuro-constructivist approach, a multi-sensory dysfunction of attentional engagement – hampering the temporal sampling of stimuli – might be responsible for language deficits typically shown in children with Specific Language Impairment (SLI). In the present study, the efficiency of visual attentional engagement was investigated in 22 children with SLI and 22 typically developing (TD) children by measuring attentional masking (AM). AM refers to impaired identification of the first of two sequentially presented masked objects (O1 and O2) in which the O1–O2 interval was manipulated. Lexical and grammatical comprehension abilities were also tested in both groups. Children with SLI showed a sluggish engagement of temporal attention, and individual differences in AM accounted for a significant percentage of unique variance in grammatical performance. Our results suggest that an attentional engagement deficit – probably linked to a dysfunction of the right fronto-parietal attentional network – might be a contributing factor in these children's language impairments.