While numerous studies of the language of children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASDs) have included narrative tasks, minimal work has been done on written language. Furthermore, managing shifts of perspective in narrative is a task that might be expected to present particular difficulties to children with ASDs. Yet this aspect of narrative construction has received comparatively little attention. Earlier studies examined lexical items used to report character speech and mental states, but rarely looked beyond the lexical level in evaluating the use of perspectivisation in narrative production.
We investigate written narrative capability in high-functioning children with ASDs attending mainstream schooling, focusing on the kind and complexity of their perspectivisation. Our aim is to investigate whether the developmental profile of narrative and perspectivisation ability in the ASD children is similar or different to that of TD children, and whether the profile shows delay or differential rate of development compared to this group. We measure this feature with a novel analytic tool, and consider this both with respect to a comparison group of TD children from the same school environments, and against a larger baseline study of TD primary school children.
A purpose-designed computer-based story elicitation environment was used to collect written story retellings by children at their schools or homes. The children were read a stimulus story of a culturally familiar type on two consecutive days then given up to 40 minutes to complete the task.
35 participants with ASDs were involved aged 6-13, all of whom had had a team assessment from a recognised child mental health service or autism specialist and were high-functioning with IQ above 70. All attended mainstream primary schools. They were paired with 29 TD children of the same gender, grade and school as ASD participants. A baseline cross-sectional study of 148 TD children across the 7 years of primary schooling was undertaken to collect normative and developmental data, using the same task.
In addition to a range of standard measures of length and linguistic complexity, ‘Perspective space’ analysis provided an alternative metric for capturing story complexity grounded in the representation of character speech/thought. Both shifts in perspectivisation and whether the speech reported was represented as dialogic or not were coded.
The baseline TD study showed some measures of narrative complexity including mean number of perspective spaces per story exhibited a strongly incremental linear progression through year levels of primary schooling. Furthermore, there was a significant effect for gender on this parameter.
The stories by ASD children analysed to date suggest differences in kind of perspectivisation used and a developmental profile indicating a slower start and more variance across year levels, but overall a similar developmental progression.
This study indicates the value of perspective space analysis as a measure of sophistication in narrative production. As TD children move through primary school they become progressively more sophisticated in their management of perspective and interaction representation. We describe the developmental profile of perspective management in stories by ASD children against this background.
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