Gestures are a specific type of communicative actions with an important role in intersubjective understanding. Through gestures children take an active part in communication, being able to “tell without saying” (Capirci et al., 1996). Also children with atypical development, in particular with Down Syndrome use many gestures, particularly to compensate for their verbal impairments (Stefanini et al., 2007). The opposite path is present in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) who exhibit deficits in their spontaneous use of gestures (Rapin, 2006). Despite the obvious importance of this issue for children with ASD, literature on gestures in this population is relatively small and is focused on their quantity rather than on their quality. Gestures, moreover, are studied in structured rather than naturalistic contexts. The study of gestures in ASD might give many insights on the construction of communicative intentionality, help identifying different phenotypes and possibly specific therapeutic approaches.
Aim of the present study is to analyze gestural communication in spontaneous interaction between children with ASD and their mothers, focusing on the identification of different types of gestures and on the quality of their execution.
60 mother-child interactions were analyzed: 20 children with typical development (TD group; CA: M=24,7, SD=4,1; MA: M=24,7, SD=4,1), 20 with Down Syndrome (DS group; CA: M=40,9, SD=6,3; MA: M=22,5, SD=3) and 20 with ASD (ASD group; CA: M=47,6, SD=11,1; MA: M=25,6, SD=8,9), matched on mental age. Videos were analyzed with a specific coding scheme (Capirci et al., 2007) allowing a quantitative and qualitative analysis of gestural production: gesture function, associated gaze, space and modality of execution, gesture-speech relation.
Analyses show significant differences between the 3 groups in many of the investigated domains. The total number of gesture is significantly lower in ASD group both in comparison with TD (p=,000) and SD group (p=,000). As for gestures function, only ASD children use instrumental gestures; they use significantly less deictic and ideative gestures in comparison with both the TD (p=,000; p=,003) and the SD group (p=,000; p=,000). Further differences emerge from the analysis of gestures’ quality: children with ASD tend to produce gestures in a peripheral space, usually not alternating gaze between partner and object. Furthermore, in ASD group a motor asymmetry is present when gestures are executed with both hands, and gestures tend to be more frequently embodied by mothers. Specific correlations between gestural production, cognitive development and autism severity scores have also been investigated.
Through a detailed analysis of gestures during mother-child interactions, this study identified: specific characteristics of gestural communication in ASD; atypical patterns in motor symmetry which seem to reply what have been found in previous developmental stages (Esposito e Venuti, 2008); correlations between cognitive function, ASD severity scores and gestural performances.
Our results confirm that gestures could be promising candidates for representing an overall synthesis of ASD core difficulties, integrating the socio-communicative realm with that of action and representation. The role of gesture analysis for structuring models of intervention could be an important future area of investigation.
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