Understanding intentionality is important for daily social interactions and language comprehension. This is particularly true for relational words like verbs (Behrend & Scofield, 2006) that carry the core meanings of sentences and for prepositions that describe relationships between two entities. Recent research suggests that children with ASD use fewer verbs and prepositions than typical children (Lopez & Lord, 2009). Given the link between intention understanding and language development, we suggest that clarifying the nature of intention understanding in ASD could lead to targeted language interventions that facilitate the acquisition of verbs and prepositions.
We explored intention understanding in children with ASD using an established paradigm (Baldwin et al. 2001). In the original study, infants were familiarized with videos of actors performing action sequences and tested with videos in which the action sequence was interrupted a various points. Increased looking at interrupted action sequences was interpreted as evidence that infants could parse continuous actions based on intention structure. In the present study, children watched the same videos and similar analyses were conducted. Given that children with ASD demonstrate abnormal attention to faces (McPartland et al., 2011), we also examined gaze fixations to the actor’s face and looks to different aspects of the scene.
Thirty-three 5-year-old children with ASD and 26 typically developing controls (matched on NVIQ) were familiarized with a video of a woman performing an intentional action sequence. At test, half the sample saw a video with a 1.5 second pause before the intention was completed, and half saw a video with a pause after the intention was completed. All individuals also saw control trials with a pause inserted once the intention was completed. The mean number of fixations and mean fixation duration was calculated for both the full screen and the actor’s face using Tobii Software.
There were no significant differences in looking to the full screen or the actor’s face between groups in the after condition. In the before condition, there was a significant effect of trial type: both groups looked more at the full screen in the before trials than in the control trials, F(1,23)=5.92, p<.05. When the mean fixation duration to the actor’s face in each trial type was analyzed, there was a group by trial interaction, such that the ASD group looked longer at the face in the control trials, and the TD group looked longer at the face when the intention was not completed, F(1,23)=5.48, p<.05.
Both groups looked longer at the full screen when an intentional action was interrupted, indicating that they understood basic intention structure. However only the typically developing children referenced the actor’s face when the action was interrupted, perhaps attempting to glean information as to why the action was not completed. This pattern of referencing the face during interrupted actions was not present in the ASD group. These gaze data are currently being analyzed to examine the time course of these face referencing patterns and explore alternative looking patterns in the ASD group.
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