Objectives: This study sought to examine performance across two measures of intention understanding (one goal-directed intention task and one social-communicatively cued intention task) in typically developing children and children with ASD. We also explored whether various assessment variables correlated with performance on measures of intention understanding.
Methods: The sample included 15 TD children and 15 children with ASD. Typically developing children were between the ages of 16 and 30 months old and were matched to ASD participants based on both developmental age and language age. Each child participated in two intention different tasks, one of which assessed understanding of intention by attending to actions on objects and the other of which necessitated attending to social-communicative cues to derive intention. Participants were also administered standardized measures of joint attention and imitation; imitation recognition was coded during periods of contingent imitation built into an unstructured imitation task.
Results: Relative to matched controls, children with ASD did not appear to exhibit deficits in understanding goal-directed intention as measured in an unfulfilled intention task. However, when required to attend to social-communicative cues to infer intention, children with ASD demonstrated impairment relative to typical controls. Preliminary analyses suggest that for children with ASD, greater intention understanding in the social-communicatively cued paradigm is positively related to frequency of initiations of joint attention and imitation recognition.
Conclusions: These results replicate previous work suggesting that children with ASD are not impaired in understanding other’s intention when employing an unfulfilled intention paradigm. However, intention understanding deficits emerge in this population when children must rely on social-communicative cues. Problems utilizing social-communicative cues to ascribe intention to the actions of others may be related to the difficulties in joint attention and imitation recognition observed in children with ASD.
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