Social Attention and Language in Siblings of Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 3, 2019: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
E. Landau1, K. Nayar2, N. Maltman3, M. Winston2, L. Bush4, G. E. Martin5 and M. Losh1, (1)Communication Sciences and Disorders, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, (2)Feinberg School of Medicine, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, (3)Northwestern University, Evanston, IL, (4)Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, IL, (5)Communication Sciences and Disorders, St. John's University, Staten Island, NY
Background: Previous research has demonstrated that individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) exhibit atypical visual attentional patterns that might contribute to the clinical-behavioral features that define ASD (e.g., Frazier et al., 2017). Studies of parents of individuals with ASD have demonstrated subtle differences in gaze patterns (Nayar et al., 2018; English et al., 2017) and social communication (e.g., Landa et al., 1991; Landa et al., 1992; Losh et al., 2008). Differences in attentional strategies evident through eye-tracking methodology might represent a promising avenue for identifying ASD-related endophenotypes (i.e., heritable characteristics that map more closely to underlying biology than the full clinical phenotype). The present study investigated gaze atypicalities as a candidate endophenotype in both individuals with ASD and siblings of individuals with ASD, examining the intersection of visual attention and social communication across two narrative tasks.

Objectives: To examine visual attentional patterns during narration as a potential contributor to social-communication differences in individuals with ASD and their siblings.

Methods: Sixty-three individuals with ASD, 54 siblings of individuals with ASD, and 52 controls completed two narrative tasks presented on an eye tracker: a structured 24-page wordless picture book (PB) task (Mayer, 1969), and an unstructured, more emotionally evocative narrative task using six images from the Thematic Apperception Test (TAT; Murray, 1943). Proportions of fixations to animate and inanimate information were calculated. Emotion, cognitive, and social words during narration were measured using Linguistic Inquiry Word Count (LIWC; Pennebaker et al., 2001) software. Global pragmatic abilities were assessed during a semi-structured conversation using the Pragmatic Rating Scale (PRS; Landa, 1992) or Pragmatic Rating Scale-School Age (Landa, 2011). Analyses controlled for IQ.

Results: Siblings of individuals with ASD allocated more attention to animate stimuli (ps<.05) than individuals with ASD and controls. Siblings also used fewer emotion words than controls. In siblings, greater attention to animate information was associated with less frequent use of emotion and cognitive words (p<.05, r = -.32; p<.05, r = -.28) and more global pragmatic language violations (p<.05, r = .28), while in individuals with ASD, greater attention to animate information was associated with more frequent use of social words (p<.01, r = .41). Analyses of the less structured TAT task are underway, and will be reported in the full presentation.

Conclusions: Results revealed subtle visual attentional differences during narration among siblings, which related to broader narrative and pragmatic differences. Increased gaze to animate information related to poorer narrative and pragmatic skills in siblings, suggesting that siblings may not adequately capitalize on social information to support narrative production. These attentional differences may reflect genetic liability measurable in clinically affected and unaffected individuals. Ongoing work assessing gaze patterns and narration during a less structured task may provide additional insights into the full range of visual attentional differences across contexts and their relationship to social communicative differences in siblings.