Narratives provide an excellent measure of children’s spontaneous language. Despite this, narrative ability of patients with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) has not been widely investigated. To date is known that, compared with those of typically developing children, narratives of people with ASD are shorter and less complex and that their lack of social awareness affects the overall narrative quality and communicative strength (Tager-Flusberg et al., 1987). Of great importance is also the relationship between gestures and language: in typical development, in fact, gestures are used to contribute to text coherence as well as to pragmatic content (Kendon 2004). This is of much interest since children with ASD usually do not use gestures to compensate for their communication difficulties, unlike children with other developmental disabilities and/or delays.
In this pilot study we analysed narrative production of children with ASD from the standpoint of the relationship between language and gestures.
30 children were studied: 15 with high functioning ASD (mean chronological age (CA)=8,4 yrs Mean Mental Age (MA)=8,1 yrs) and 15 with typical development (Mean CA= 8,9 yrs Mean MA =8,5 yrs) matched for mental and chronological ages. Subjects were shown a 3 minute fragment from a Tom & Jerry cartoon and immediately after they were asked to tell the story they had just watched to one of their parents. Sessions were videotaped and video files were transcribed and coded using ELAN software (http://www.mpi.nl/tools/), as well as an annotation scheme (Capirci et al, 2011) including linguistic variables and information regarding narrative, pragmatics and gestures. A through assessment of children’s functioning was used in order to make correlations between nonverbal communicative styles and other developmental variables.
From a linguistic point of view, the narratives of ASD children is composed of a number of clauses which makes it comparable with those of TD children. Despite this, children with ASD produce a significantly smaller number of gestures, compared with the TD group. Moreover, gesture use by children with ASD presents some formal and semantic peculiarity on the execution’s strategies and on relations – both semantic and temporal – between the gestural and vocal elements of the utterance. The few gestures produced are not used to add value to the content of spoken language; instead they seem to be produced redundantly, to underlie what the language would already be able to communicate.
Conclusions: The study of narratives, particularly from the standpoint of the relation between gestures and verbal production, might give many insights on the communicative capacity of children. This pilot study evidenced the paucity of gestural production and the atypical patterns of their use, both in terms of timing and of communicative meaning. Since the very specific impairment in communicative abilities and at the same time the wide heterogeneity within the ASD group, an important future area of research would be identifying different sub-groups of ASD in relation with gesture use both for theoretical and for therapeutic reasons; for example for identifying children that might eventually benefit from a gestural training.
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