Recent evidence suggests that for typically developing infants, communicative cues produce specific memory biases that may be central to their role in teaching interactions. Specifically, the addition of communicative cues when an experimenter demonstrates the location of an item facilitates memory for the item and negatively impacts memory for the item’s location in typically developing infants (Yoon et al., 2008). For children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), communicative cues can be difficult to interpret; however, little is known about their effect on memory.
To assess the effect of communicative cues on short-term memory for items and their locations in young children with ASD and Typical Development (TD).
Data collection is ongoing; to date, 17 children with ASD (3 female, mean age = 7.0 years) and 16 TD controls (5 female; mean age = 6.2 years) have provided valid data. Children were diagnosed using the ADOS, ADI-R and expert clinical judgment; cognitive skills were evaluated with the Differential Abilities Scale-II. Memory was assessed using a board in which distinctive pegs could be placed in any of 25 locations. Key variables included: item memory – percentage of correctly chosen pegs; item-location memory – percentage of correctly chosen pegs placed in the correct location.
After ability to understand the instructions was assessed, children were administered the “Communicative” and “Non-Communicative” conditions in randomized order. In both conditions, children watched a female model sequentially place four pegs on the board, before covering them up. Children were then given an array of target and distracter pegs, and asked to reproduce the pattern of pegs on their own board. In the Communicative condition, the female model used child-directed speech, alternated her gaze between the child and the blocks, and pointed to the target items after they were placed on the board. In the Non-Communicative condition, a second female model used adult-directed speech, alternated her gaze between the blocks and a point off-camera, and did not point to the target items.
Preliminary Repeated Measures ANOVAs (alpha = 0.05) indicated that for the TD group, item memory did not significantly differ between conditions; item-location memory was significantly worse in the Communicative than the Non-Communicative condition. For the ASD group, both item and item-location memory were significantly worse in the Communicative than the Non-Communicative condition. Finally, the only significant group difference was poorer item memory in the Communicative condition for the ASD versus the TD group.
As predicted, memory for the location of an item (but not the item itself) was negatively impacted by communicative cues during encoding for typically developing children. Thus, communication-induced memory biases may operate through early childhood. However, for children with ASD both item memory and item-location memory were negatively impacted by communicative cues. Possibly, increased difficulty in interpreting communicative cues has a global impact on encoding for children with ASD. The generality of these effects is a critical topic for further investigation, since there may be important implications for the use of communicative cues in teaching interactions with children with ASD.