Verbal Problem-Solving in Deafness and Autism Spectrum Disorders

Friday, May 18, 2012
Sheraton Hall (Sheraton Centre Toronto)
3:00 PM
B. Alderson-Day, The University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, United Kingdom

People with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) use less efficient strategies than typically-developing participants on measures of verbal problem-solving such as the Twenty Questions Task (TQT; Minshew et al., 1994). While this can be explained with reference to autism-specific cognitive deficits, the problem-solving of deaf participants suggests a contributory role of atypical language development.

Like participants with ASD, deaf participants have been reported to ask over-specific questions in their problem-solving on the TQT, even when they possess good language skills ( Marschark & Everhart, 1999). It is thought that this reflects atypical organization of semantic networks (Marschark et al., 2004). However, previous research on this profile has not controlled for verbal and non-verbal IQ differences between deaf and hearing participants, so it is unclear how similar deaf problem-solving is to ASD. Moreover, the link between problem-solving and semantic organization has not been demonstrated empirically.


i) To replicate the TQT profile in a sample of deaf individuals and compare this with verbal problem-solving performance in a) ASD and  b) hearing, typically-developing (TD) participants, controlling for verbal and non-verbal cognitive abilities.

ii) To explore the relationship between semantic organization and use of semantic strategies in the TQT, via performance on a semantic decision task.


Primary data were acquired from a sample of deaf adults (n = 9, AgeRange = 22-29) and children (n = 11, AgeRange = 9-16) recruited from local schools and community settings. All participants attempted an adapted TQT and subgroups completed tasks assessing language use and semantic decision skills. These data were then compared with existing data from a sample of children with ASD (n = 22, AgeRange = 9-16) and a larger group of hearing TD participants (n = 48, AgeRange = 9-36). Verbal and non-verbal abilities were examined using the Similarities and Matrix Reasoning subtests of the WASI. Analyses will examine the contribution of group membership, age, verbal and non-verbal cognitive ability to question quality (QQ), an efficiency metric that reflects the mean information eliminated per question on the TQT. 


Preliminary results suggest that adult participants who are deaf show significantly lower QQ scores than hearing counterparts on the TQT (F (1,33) = 4.278, p <.05) even when verbal and non-verbal cognitive abilities are accounted for. In contrast, QQ scores in deaf and ASD groups do not differ (F (1,28) = 0.946, p  = .339, n.s.). Further analysis of performance in the group of deaf children will examine relations to semantic decision skills (and by extension) semantic organization. 


Initial conclusions suggest that the problem-solving profile of deaf participants on the TQT is a) less efficient than hearing counterparts and b) very similar to ASD performance. Examination of semantic decision performance will provide insight into lexical organization and its relation to accessibility of verbal strategies for problem-solving in people who are deaf and people with ASD. Overlaps in deaf and ASD problem-solving are important in understanding the long-term effects of atypical language development on cognitive skills.

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