International Meeting for Autism Research: Influence of Theory of Mind On the Written Compositions of Adults with High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders

Influence of Theory of Mind On the Written Compositions of Adults with High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders

Thursday, May 20, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
11:00 AM
H. M. Brown , Faculty of Health and Rehabilitation Sciences, The University of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada
P. D. Klein , Faculty of Education, The University of Western Ontario, London, ON, Canada
Background: Successful participation in most educational, work and social settings necessitates solid writing competence. Research suggests this is an area of particular weakness in people with high-functioning autism spectrum disorders (HFASD), and is out of keeping with their average to above average intelligence. However, previous research lacks systematic description of their writing difficulties and the extent to which such problems are evident across the HFASD population. Further, no previous research has attempted to identify the cognitive factors that underlie written expression problems in HFASD. 
Objectives: The current study sought to: (1) compare the expository and narrative writing of adults with HFASD and their peers without disabilities, and (2) to compare the HFASD group to controls on theory of mind (ToM) skill and to correlate ToM skill with various textual measures.
Methods: Sixteen adults with HFASD and sixteen neurotypical (NT) adults were recruited to participate in this study. Participants completed the Social Attribution Task, a ToM task (Klin, 2000) and wrote expository and narrative texts. Four composites, Length, Mechanics, Text Quality and Textual evidence of Theory of Mind (Textual ToM), were assessed across both genres.
Results: (1) Adults with HFASD wrote narrative texts that demonstrated a limited understanding of the inner worlds of the characters (Textual ToM) and that were shorter than the texts of the NT group. In  contrast, the frequency of ToM elements in expository texts of individuals with HFASD were similar to those of their NT peers, and both groups’ essays were of similar length. (2) Across both genres, there were no significant differences between groups in their competency with the mechanics of their texts. (3) The HFASD group were less able than the NT group to create high quality narratives and expositories; that is, texts which were well structured, locally and globally coherent, and had appropriate background information. (4) Performance on the Social Attribution Task was significantly weaker in the group with HFASD relative to the NT group. (5) Social Attribution Task performance was significantly correlated with the Length and the Text Quality Composites across both genres, and with the Narrative Textual ToM and the Expository Mechanics Composites. Conclusions: This study was the first to systematically describe strengths and weaknesses in the writing of adults with HFASD and examine the influence of ToM on their writing abilities. Descriptively, individuals with HFASD tended to have greater difficulties writing in the narrative genre than in the expository genre, and they had problems creating high quality texts across both genres. It is noteworthy, however, that there was great variability in the scores of those with HFASD, with some individuals with HFASD scoring as well as or better than the mean of the NT group on several writing variables. Finally, results suggested that the ToM skills of adults with HFASD may impact their success at writing. Detailed description of the strengths and weakness in the writing of individuals with HFASD has instructional implications and it increases our understanding of this population and the nature of autism itself.
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