Objectives: The aim of this study was to investigate the responses of children with autism when an adult attends to the child during play compared to being ignored or imitated. We hypothesized that children with autism would be similarly unresponsive to being ignored and receiving attention, in comparison to being imitated which would increase their social behaviors.
Methods: Participants included 20 children with ASD (18 male, 2 female) with an average chronological age of 41 months and 13 children with typical development (8 male, 5 female), with an average chronological age of 24 months. The groups were matched on non verbal mental age. All children sat across a table from the experimenter and were given a set of toys to play with. The protocol consisted of three conditions for interaction between the child and experimenter: 1. the experimenter ignored the child’s activities, 2. the experimenter showed interest in child’s play with eye-contact and non-directive comments, 3. the experimenter imitated the play and vocalizations of the child. Each condition was one minute long and was administered in the above set order. All conditions were coded for frequency of social bids of the child including giving, showing, pointing and looks to the experimenter’s face.
Results: Social bids were collapsed within each condition. A group by condition repeated measures ANOVA was evaluated using a Greenhouse-Geiser correction due to a lack of sphericity. The ANOVA yielded a significant group effect (F(1,31)= 10.422, p<.01), with the typical group exhibiting significantly more social bids overall (M=16.1, SD=8.9) than the group with ASD (M=7.5, SD=6.3). A significant main effect of condition (F(1, 31)= 14.284, p<.001) was also found. Examination of helmert contrasts for condition revealed that the ignore condition was significantly different than the combined attention and imitation conditions t(1,31)=35.188, p<.001, but there was no difference between the attention and imitation conditions (t(1,31)=.55, p=.46). The interaction effect between group and condition was not significant (F(2,62)=.82, p=.42).
Conclusions: Our results contradict the hypothesis that children with autism would not respond similarly to interest and imitation from the examiner. Our findings revealed that although children with autism engaged in fewer social behaviors overall than mental age matched peers with typical development, the children with autism, as well as those with typical development, responded as strongly to social attention as they did to being imitated. This implies that young children with autism, like those with typical development, find simple noncontingent social attention, involving gaze and language, rewarding, and that they discriminate attention from non-attention.