Statistical Learning and Autism-Related Social Communication Difficulties
- To test weather the ability to learn implicit statistics of the environment in both the auditory and visual domains relate to autistic traits associated with the broad autism phenotype.
- To examine specifically whether language comprehension and production are related to auditory and visual SL.
- To test whether other autism-related issues in socio-communication (e.g. social awareness, emotion regulation) are related to SL abilities.
Methods: We administered well-established measures of auditory and visual SL paradigms where individuals were presented with steams of syllables (auditory) and shapes (visual) during a learning phase that were embedded with statistical regularities unknown to the participants (N=24, data collection ongoing; mean age=19.50, SD=4.51). Following the learning phase, participants were tested on whether they learned these statistical regularities through completing pattern completion tasks. Participants receptive and expressive language skills were then tested using the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF-5), and completed clinically-reliable questionnaires examining autistic traits (Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaire; BAPQ), social communication (Social Responsiveness Scale; SRS), and social competency (Multi-dimensional Scale of Social Competency; MSCS). We hypothesized that low levels of SL abilities would be associated with (a) higher levels of autistic traits, (b) decreased receptive and expressing language abilities, and (c) decreased social competency.
Results: Auditory SL was significantly correlated with receptive (r(23)=.28, p<.05) and expressive (r(23)=.32, p<.05) language comprehension. Further, visual SL was significantly correlated with multiple aspects of social communication related to ASD symptoms, including social communication (r(23)=.45, p<.05), social cognition, (r(23)=.42, p<.05), social awareness (r(23)=.42), pragmatic language ability (r(23)=.42, p<.05), social motivation (r(22)=.44, p<.05), and emotion regulation (r(22)=.43, p<.05).
Conclusions: Our results demonstrate that auditory and visual SL are specifically related to a number of issues associated with ASD, including language abilities, social communication and competency, and autistic traits in general. These findings are in line with current theories of language development which suggest that SL tends to facilitate early language ability, and that lower-level SL difficulties in ASD may cascade into, or contribute to, the language and socio-communication issues canonically observed in ASD.