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Components of Perspective Taking in Autism

Friday, 3 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
A. B. de Marchena1,2, R. García-Pérez2 and I. M. Eigsti1, (1)Psychology, University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, (2)Musicaycolor Child Psychology Music Therapy Center, Madrid, Spain
Background: Children with autism have well-known limitations in their ability to imitate and to adopt others’ perspectives (Garcia-Perez, Hobson & Lee, 2008, Hobson & Hobson, 2008; Meyer & Hobson, 2004).  However, they do show areas of strength within this complex domain (Hobson & Lee, 1999).  Specifically, children with autism are less likely to adopt others’ attitudes than to imitate specific actions.  This discrepancy may suggest that children with autism have limitations in their propensity to identify with the attitudes and feelings of others, resulting in a tendency to adopt some aspects of others’ perspectives (e.g., explicit actions) but not all (e.g., implicit attitudes).

Objectives: The goal of this pilot study was to determine what features of others’ perspectives are spontaneously adopted by children with autism.  We specifically compared adoption of the actions enacted by others with their attitudes (i.e., emotional valence).  Further, we divide actions into motor behaviors (i.e., pantomime) and verbal behaviors (i.e., non-speech vocalizations). We expect that this analysis will shed light on relative strengths and weaknesses within the domain of perspective taking and imitation in autism.

Methods: Participants were 9 children with autism and non-autism developmental delays living in Madrid, Spain.  All measures were conducted in Spanish.  Participants acted out six different scenarios featuring transitive actions (e.g., “act like a monkey eating food”). On each trial, following the child’s spontaneous enacting of the scenario, the experimenter modeled the scenario herself, including a specific action, sound, and attitude, then asked the child to enact the event again. The action was the same for all six trials across participants. The attitude and sound, which reflected that attitude, were counterbalanced, such that half of the participants saw the experimenter enact one attitude and sound for a given trial (e.g., monkey is disgusted by what he is eating) and the other half saw a contrasting attitude (e.g., monkey loves what he is eating).  We are interested in comparing participants’ enacting of the action, which requires imitation but minimal role taking, with their enacting of the sound and attitude, which require progressively higher degrees of role taking.

Results: 4 children with autism were able to complete all study procedures (Mean chronological age = 10.0 years, Mean verbal mental age = 6.3 years). On average, action, sound, and attitude appeared to be comparably challenging, with successful performance at 2.25, 2.25, and 2.5 trials (respectively, out of 6).  Participants varied in terms of their individual abilities; while some participants were most skilled at adopting the experimenters’ actions, others adopted her attitude most effectively.  The range of performance observed in this small sample suggests that our task is appropriate for studying multiple components of perspective taking in this population.

Conclusions: Imitation and perspective taking are critical targets autism interventions.  The current pilot study is in its early stages, but our results suggest that breaking perspective taking into action, sound, and attitude in this way may help shed light on the different aspects of perspectiv

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