Adaptation of Object Descriptions to a Partner Under Increasing Communicative Demands: A Comparison of Children With and Without Autism

McGill University, School of Communication, Sciences and Disorders, Montreal, QC, Canada.
Autism Research (Impact Factor: 4.33). 12/2009; 2(6):334-47. DOI: 10.1002/aur.102
Source: PubMed


This study compared the object descriptions of school-age children with high-functioning autism (HFA) with those of a matched group of typically developing children. Descriptions were elicited in a referential communication task where shared information was manipulated, and in a guessing game where clues had to be provided about the identity of an object that was hidden from the addressee. Across these tasks, increasingly complex levels of audience design were assessed: (1) the ability to give adequate descriptions from one's own perspective, (2) the ability to adjust descriptions to an addressee's perspective when this differs from one's own, and (3) the ability to provide indirect yet identifying descriptions in a situation where explicit labeling is inappropriate. Results showed that there were group differences in all three cases, with the HFA group giving less efficient descriptions with respect to the relevant context than the comparison group. More revealing was the identification of distinct adaptation profiles among the HFA participants: those who had difficulty with all three levels, those who displayed Level 1 audience design but poor Level 2 and Level 3 design, and those demonstrated all three levels of audience design, like the majority of the comparison group. Higher structural language ability, rather than symptom severity or social skills, differentiated those HFA participants with typical adaptation profiles from those who displayed deficient audience design, consistent with previous reports of language use in autism.

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    • "There are a number of reasons why performance would be enhanced in structured language tasks vs. communication in real life. For one, the interaction is more predictable and the problem space is limited, so it may become easier to incorporate contextual information including a partner's perspective (Nadig et al., 2009). Begeer and colleagues proposed that over arousal and a focus on local rather than global processing that is observed in many individuals with ASD could be " neutralized in structured social interaction " (Begeer et al., 2010, p. 115). "
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    • "For example, of children with ASD, only those with poor language skills show a low ability to suppress word meanings that are not consistent within a context; those with language skills in the normal range show normal context-dependent suppression (Norbury, 2005; Brock et al., 2008). Similarly, language ability predicts whether children with ASD use the appropriate amount of information in descriptions of objects according to the knowledge of their communication partner (Nadig et al., 2009). In one study, Norbury et al. (2009) used eye tracking while participants watched videos of peers interacting in familiar situations. "
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