Objectives: The main objective of this study is to explore the possibility of deficits in anticipatory capacity accounting for the frequently reported cognitive dysfunctions within social cognition and verbal communication in autism. Specifically, we opt for a direct as possible comparison between the two fields of interest, aiming not only to gain insight into anticipatory capacity within each of the two areas, but also into the generalizability of the assumption across the two domains.
Methods: The study will be conducted in two stages differing mainly in the tested population. In the first stage, a healthy student population (n = 30) is included in a pilot that aims to test two newly developed eye-tracking paradigms, one within the action domain and the other within the language domain. After conducting the pilot, the second stage includes collecting the data from high functioning children with autism (n = 20) and their healthy controls (n = 20) matched on age (10 to 16 years) and IQ (> 70). In both stages, each participant takes part in two experiments. In Experiment 1, our action paradigm is applied, in which participants watch videos showing a person executing a series of object-related actions either sequentially interdependent or not (baseline). We measure anticipatory eye movements towards the object associated with the upcoming action. In Experiment 2, our language paradigm is applied, in which participants watch scenes while listening to sentences that differ in the degree of the constraining context allowing for anticipatory behavior. Images for scenes are taken from the action paradigm, in order to keep the two paradigms as comparable as possible. In both experiments, we compare eye-gaze frequencies and onset latencies between high and low anticipatory conditions.
Results: Data acquisition for the pilot starts in January 2010, with two main focus areas: (1) testing of both paradigms for their sensitivity to detect the desired (eye-movement and latency) effects reflecting anticipatory capacity in general and (2) in autism in specific. The latter is operationalized by means of a correlation between the effects reflecting anticipatory capacity and the score on the Autism Quotient Scale (Dutch version). The pilot data will be used to adapt the two paradigms if needed, before testing the actual patient population.
Conclusions: The results of the pilot data showing the sensitivity of our paradigms to tackle anticipatory capacity in autism together with the preliminary data assessed in the actual patient population will be presented at the conference.