Do Mandarin-Speaking High-Functioning Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders Use Intonation in the Resolution of Ambiguous Sentences?

Friday, May 16, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
Y. Su and L. Y. Su, Mental Health Institute, The Second Xiangya Hospital, Central South University, Changsha, China

English-speaking high-functioning adolescents with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) demonstrated difficulties in using prosody to resolve syntactic ambiguities (Diehl et al., 2008), despite their relative strengths in processing grammatical prosody in simple sentences (e.g., Chevallier et al., 2009; Paul et al., 2005). Little is known about how children and adolescents with ASD develop and perceive grammatical prosody in other languages.   


This study explores whether high-functioning Mandarin-speaking children and adolescents with ASD use intonation (i.e., level intonation vs. rising intonation) in disambiguating the statement reading vs. the question reading of sentences with the wh-word shenme ‘what’.  


Twenty-eight 4-15-year-old high-functioning children and adolescents with ASD and 28 matched TD controls (further divided into young/old subgroups, means = 6; 7 and 11; 8) participated in a computer-based Question-Statement task (cf. Zhou & Crain, 2011), in which they either judge the truth/falsity of statements or provide answers to questions. Two Prosody Conditions (Prosody-S and Prosody-Q) assessed the participants’ sensitivity to intonation in resolving ambiguous sentences with shenme, e.g., Xiaohouzi meiyou chi shenme shuiguo: the level intonation on shenme makes a statement, e.g., The monkeys didn’t eat any fruit; whereas the rising intonation on shenme denotes a question, e.g., What kind of fruit did the monkeys not eat? Two Structure Conditions (Structure-S and Structure-Q) examined their knowledge of the statement reading vs. the question reading of shenmein unambiguous sentences, in which the syntactic/semantic structures alone determined the interpretations.  


ANOVA tests revealed a main effect of condition (F (3, 78) = 2.816, p = 0.045) and a marginal effect of diagnosis (F (1, 26) = 3.205, p = 0.085) for the ASD/young and the TD/young groups. The ASD/young group performed poorer than the TD/young group in the Prosody-S condition (71.43% vs. 87.50%) and the Structure-S condition (69.64% vs. 94.64%), with the latter reaching significant difference (t (26) = -1.974, p = 0.059). But both groups performed equally well in the Prosody-Q (83.93% vs. 85.71%) and the Structure-Q (100% for both) conditions. Moreover, the ASD group’s performance demonstrated a developmental trend, showing a main effect of age (F (1, 26) = 8.054, p = 0.009) and a condition x age interaction (F (3, 78) = 2.693, p = 0.052). The ASD/old group performed significantly better than the ASD/young group in the Prosody-S condition (t (26) = - 2.511, p = 0.019) and the Structure-S condition (t (26) = - 2.645, p = 0.014), and they performed compatibly well as the TD/old group, with correct response rates at ceiling (91.07% to 100%) across conditions.


Mandarin-speaking children with ASD are less efficient than controls in assigning the statement reading (but not the question reading) of shenme in ambiguous sentences. This may not merely be attributed to their less sensitivity to the level intonation, rather they show delayed knowledge of the statement reading of shenme even in unambiguous sentences. Mandarin-speaking adolescents with ASD, with improved knowledge of the statement reading of shenme, demonstrate unimpaired use of intonation in resolving ambiguous sentences with shenme.