Comparison and Structural Alignment Processes of Learning New Relational Concepts in Children with ASD
Structural Mapping Theory (SMT) uses multiple comparisons for creating a map of structural similarities between different structures of knowledge, with low (perceptual) and high (conceptual) levels to enable efficient learning and reasoning processes. In terms of SMT, individuals with ASD often find it difficult to deal with tasks that require the creation of structural similarity based on deep internal connections.
This study used SMT to examine learning patterns of individuals with high functioning ASD (HFASD) to investigate structural mapping processes that occur during acquisition of new relational concepts (using comparisons and familiarity) among children with HFASD, compared to children with typical development (TD) and children with intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDD).
Participants included 24 children with IDD (ages 8-16), 24 children with HFASD (ages 5-8), and 24 children with TD (ages 5-6), all matched in receptive mental language age. A computerized task included 13 sets of graphic illustrations of familiar, partly familiar and unknown items that were presented in novel spatial configurations with and without comparison to the standards; first with a presentation of one standard (no comparison), followed by a presentation of two standards (with comparison). The children heard a label for a standard followed by a request to extend this label to one of two alternatives: one that shared an item with the standard and another that shared relational configuration.
When one standard was available (no comparison), participants from all three groups demonstrated a preference style for extending concepts by matching to items (perceptual categorization) rather than to relational structures (conceptual categorization). However, when presented with two standards (with comparison), children with TD and IDD demonstrated significant increase in their tendency for matching based on relational concepts, while participants with HFASD did not change their preference and continued selection based on item matching. When presented with familiar and partially familiar stimuli, there was a significant increase in selection of relational concepts for children with TD and IDD in the comparison condition, with no difference for children with HFASD.
Results demonstrate that children IDD and TD were able to benefit from comparisons in learning new relational concepts presented to them as graphic illustrations and used structural mapping processes to highlight common features for creating new relational concepts. However, children with HFASD did not benefit from the opportunity to compare between the graphic representations. Thus, children with HFASD continued to base their preferences on perceptual characteristics even in the comparison conditions. Moreover, in contrast to children with TD and IDD, who benefited from the opportunity given to them to apply existing knowledge for creating conceptual categories, children with HFASD demonstrated a similar trend regardless of the level of familiarity.
In this, individuals with HFASD were characterized by atypical activity of the structural mapping processing, demonstrating a tendency to perceptual categorization in the process of concept acquisition, without producing significant benefits from the opportunity to compare different knowledge structures and / or use existing knowledge structures, for a comprehensive analysis of the connections between structures.