International Meeting for Autism Research (London, May 15-17, 2008): Nonverbal Processing Skill and Social Adjustment in Preschoolers with Autism

Nonverbal Processing Skill and Social Adjustment in Preschoolers with Autism

Thursday, May 15, 2008
Champagne Terrace/Bordeaux (Novotel London West)
10:30 AM
D. C. Carey , Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA
S. Nowicki , Psychology, Emory University, Atlanta, GA
Background: Despite the variety and range of impairments that may exist in children with autism, the most significant deficits involve social interaction and communication, as these span across developmental stages and occur regardless of cognitive abilities. It is thought that difficulites in the social-communicative realm may stem from a deficit in nonverbal processing, however previous research in this area has produced equivocal results.

Objectives: The purpose of this study was to compare the receptive nonverbal processing ability of ASD and typical preschool children and its association to their social adjustment. It was predicted that children with autism would be less proficient than typical peers in reading nonverbal cues of emotion, and that scores on the nonverbal processing measure would relate to the participant’s social adjustment ratings, as nonverbal processing abilities are necessary for effective interpersonal interactions (Nowicki, 2007).

Methods: Participants were 18 preschool children (14 boys and 4 girls, M age = 56.8 months). The Diagnostic Analysis of Nonverbal Accuracy (DANVA2; Nowicki & Duke, 1994) subtests of child and adult faces and paralanguage were used to assess nonverbal processing skill. Social adjustment was measured by a teacher’s rating of social skills and problem behaviors.

Results: The results provided some support for the hypothesis that autistic children compared to typical children are worse at decoding emotion, especially emotions expressed through the paralanguage channel and at high intensity, although some differences diminished when controlling for cognitive ability. Poorer nonverbal processing skill was associated with poorer social adjustment for both groups of children, especially for the autistic group.

Conclusions: The finding that preschool children with ASD have difficulties identifying simple emotions and high intensity emotions provides evidence for a core emotional deficit in autism, which may impair their social adjustment. The possible existence of a nonverbal deficit in young children may be important for future diagnosis and intervention.

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