Early Learning Processes in Autism and Williams Syndrome: Commonalities and Differences in Relation to Cognitive and Adaptive Functioning

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
P. A. Fanning1, G. Vivanti2, C. Dissanayake3 and D. R. Hocking4, (1)School of Psychology and Public Health, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, (2)AJ Drexel Autism Institute, Philadelphia, PA, (3)Olga Tennison Autism Research Centre, La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia, (4)Psychology & Counselling, Developmental Neuromotor & Cognition Lab, La Trobe University, Melbourne, AUSTRALIA
Background:  Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and Williams syndrome (WS) are neurodevelopmental disorders with an opposing profile of cognitive and behavioral features. While opposing propensities for social engagement appear to be the key distinction between ASD and WS, there are striking commonalities in social and communicative difficulties across these disorders. Both convergences and divergences have been observed across domain-general and domain-specific early learning processes that might shape differential outcomes across ASD and WS.

Objectives:  In the present study, we examined how preschoolers with ASD, WS and typical development (TD) performed in tasks tapping both domain-general (working memory, sustained attention, habituation) and domain-specific (social and joint attention, motor intention, imitation, spontaneous object use) early learning processes. Here we aimed to (1) document early emerging commonalities and differences across key early learning processes in children with ASD and WS, and in comparison to TD children, and (2) examine concurrent associations with intellectual and adaptive functioning in ASD, WS and TD children.

Methods:  We recruited young children (aged 27 to 92 months) with ASD (n = 54, mean DQ = 66), and with WS (n = 24, mean DQ = 56) who were age-matched to a group of TD children (n = 20, mean DQ = 108). Measures of domain-general and domain-specific early learning processes were administered using a combination of eye tracking and behavioural observation. Multiple regression was used in preliminary analyses to assess the relative contribution of individual aspects of early learning to concurrent levels of intellectual and adaptive function.

Results:  Preliminary results revealed that groups performed similarly in working memory, social attention, and motor intention, while in all other tasks group differences were evident. In the ASD group, sustained attention was the only significant factor associated with intellectual and adaptive function. In the WS group, spontaneous object use and joint attention were significantly associated with intellectual function, while imitation was associated with adaptive function. In TD children, sustained attention and joint attention were significantly associated with both intellectual and adaptive function, while habituation and spontaneous object use were associated with intellectual function.

Conclusions:  Children with ASD and WS show different patterns of relationships between key early learning processes and intellectual and adaptive development. In young TD children both domain-general and domain-specific cognitive abilities emerged as significant factors in intellectual and adaptive functioning. This contrasted with ASD where only sustained attention was associated with intellectual and adaptive functioning, and WS where domain-specific cognitive abilities appeared to be more significant. These findings have the potential to inform our understanding of syndrome-specific early learning processes that might shape intellectual and adaptive outcomes, and inform the development of early interventions that focus on relative cognitive strengths to build on domains of weakness, an approach that may have cascading effects on later outcomes in ASD and WS.