International Meeting for Autism Research (London, May 15-17, 2008): Do People with Autism Process Words in Context? Evidence from Language-Mediated Eye-Movements

Do People with Autism Process Words in Context? Evidence from Language-Mediated Eye-Movements

Friday, May 16, 2008: 10:30 AM
Mancy (Novotel London West)
J. Brock , Macquarie Centre for Cognitive Science (MACCS), Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
C. Norbury , Psychology, Royal Holloway, University of London, Egham, United Kingdom
S. Einav , Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford
K. Nation , Psychology, University of Oxford, Oxford
Background: According to the ‘weak central coherence’ (WCC) account, individuals with autism process information out of context. Supporting evidence comes from studies of language comprehension where, for example, individuals with autism fail to use sentence context to derive the correct meaning of ambiguous words. However, it is unclear whether such findings reflect specific difficulties in using contextual information or confounding linguistic demands.

Objectives: We used eyetracking methodology to investigate ongoing sentence comprehension and determine the effect of sentence context on spoken word identification as a function of (a) participants' autism diagnosis and (b) their language ability.

Methods: We tested 24 adolescents meeting ADOS criteria for autism spectrum disorder and 24 non-autistic adolescents closely matched on language ability. Eye-movements were recorded as participants listened to sentences, responding when they heard a word that matched one of four objects on a computer display.
Results: Eye-movements were affected by the phonological overlap between the spoken words and the names of objects in the display. For example, on hearing the word “hamster”, participants looked more at a picture of a hammer than at other unrelated objects. However, this effect was significantly reduced if the sentence context made the ‘competitor’ (hammer) an unlikely referent, as in the sentence “Joe stroked the hamster”. Contrary to predictions, the effect of context on eye-movements was comparable across groups. Instead, regardless of diagnosis, individuals with poorer language skills showed reduced influence of context on eye-movements.

Conclusions: Our results contradict previous findings supporting the WCC account, suggesting that context-processing difficulties are related to language impairment rather than being autism specific. Together, these findings point towards a more refined version of WCC. This in turn has implications for theories regarding the neural basis of autism.

See more of: Language and Communication
See more of: Oral Presentations
See more of: Oral Presentations