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