International Meeting for Autism Research: Spatial Navigation In Children with ASD: An Examination of Search Strategy Sub-Types

Spatial Navigation In Children with ASD: An Examination of Search Strategy Sub-Types

Saturday, May 14, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
10:00 AM
N. M. Ing, M. Robberts, S. Malcolm-Smith and K. Thomas, Psychology, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa
Background: The neuropsychology of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a field featuring lively debate. There have been various inconsistent findings regarding the spatial cognitive abilities of children with ASD; for instance, the question of whether autistic children have impaired, intact, or superior spatial cognitive abilities remains unanswered. Furthermore, few studies have focused specifically on spatial navigation in ASD; of those few, all have featured only high-functioning autistic children and/or those with a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome (AS), thus limiting their ability to generalize to the entire population of ASD children. Additionally, no study has specifically examined the search strategies ASD children use during navigation.

Objectives: This study aimed to describe the types of navigational search strategies used by autistic children across the spectrum, with the goal of adding to the literature on purported superior spatial cognitive abilities in ASD. The study also aimed to include not only high-functioning autism (HFA) and AS children but also low-functioning autism (LFA) and pervasive developmental disorder not-otherwise-specified (PDD-NOS) children to ensure the sample was representative of children from across the ASD spectrum.

Methods: This study used a computer-based navigation task that allows examination of individual search strategies. Participants were recruited into six age- and sex-matched groups (n = 15 per group): LFA, HFA, AS, PDD-NOS, DSM-defined mild mental retardation (MR), and typically developing (TD). Following Kallai et al. (2005), search strategies were classified as one of Visual Scan, Thigmotaxis, Circling, or Enfilading. Data analyses examined whether there were differences in the types of strategies used by (a) children across the autism spectrum, and (b) ASD children compared to TD and MR children.

Results: Previous studies of TD individuals show that Visual Scan strategies tend to be used by those who perform most efficiently on the task. The results showed that there was no significant difference between the autism groups and their IQ-matched controls. The PDD-NOS, HFA, AS, and TD children used the Visual Scanning strategy most frequently, whereas LFA and MH children tended to use the relatively inefficient Thigmotaxis strategy.

Conclusions: These results suggest that children diagnosed as LFA or MH might take somewhat longer to find an efficient route to a desired object in an unfamiliar environment, and might pay less attention to visual cues as they encounter unfamiliar environments. This finding points to a possible area of intervention for children with autism who struggle to adapt to new environments.


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