An Examination of Narrative Abilities in Individuals with ASD and Their Family Members
Narrative ability is a core element of pragmatic language and a primary mode of thought and communication (e.g. Bruner, 1986; Ochs & Capps, 1996, 2001). Individuals with ASD consistently demonstrate deficits in narration (e.g., reduced narrative coherence and limited use of causal and emotion words), particularly during unstructured contexts (Losh & Capps, 2003). Parents of individuals with ASD also demonstrate subclinical differences in narration (Landa et al., 1991), which may index genetic liability to ASD. To date, no study has directly compared narrative performance of individuals with ASD and their parents on the same measures and in both structured and semi-structured contexts.
To examine narrative ability in individuals with ASD and parents of individuals with ASD across structured and unstructured contexts, and explore associations with cognitive and clinical phenotypes.
Participants included high functioning adolescents and young adults with ASD (n=31), parents of individuals with ASD (n=96), and typically developing control groups (proband controls, n=29; control parents n=58). Participants completed two narrative tasks – a structured wordless picture book, Frog, Where Are You? (PB) and a semi-structured task employing images from the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT). Narratives were analyzed using Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC; Pennebaker, 2001), a computational tool that identifies the use of different lexical categories and previously used as an index of emotional expression and social connectedness in communicative interaction (Kahn et al., 2007). Measures of executive functioning and social cognition were examined as correlates. All analyses controlled for verbal IQ.
Results indicated differences in social word use and grammatical devices, particularly during the semi-structured context in both the ASD and ASD parent groups (p values <.05). Parents of individuals with ASD more often produced expressions of anxiety in both tasks (TAT: t(158)=5.5, p<.05; PB: t(129)=2.2, p<.05). Executive function correlated with indices of grammatical complexity in individuals with ASD across tasks (ps<.05), and with expressions of anxiety in ASD parents during the semi-structured task (p<.04). On the PB task, parent social cognitive ability was associated with the use of affective words (p<.04). Finally, several significant parent-child correlations emerged in the use of specific lexical categories.
Building on prior research demonstrating more pronounced narrative differences in unstructured contexts among individuals with ASD (Losh & Capps, 2003), findings indicate that both the ASD and ASD parent groups encounter more challenges in the unstructured narrative contexts that are more typical of daily communicative interactions. Results underscore the contributions of executive functioning and social cognition to narration, highlighting these domains as possible underlying sources of narrative differences related to ASD. Expressions of anxiety noted among parents of individuals with ASD further suggest that narration may be a skill impacted in both ASD and unaffected relatives who are at increased genetic liability. Parent-child correlations highlight the need for future research exploring relationships between genetic and environmental influences on the social language development of individuals with ASD.