The Wh-Questions Comprehension in Korean Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Friday, May 13, 2016: 5:30 PM-7:00 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
J. Park1, M. Nam2, S. W. Cho3, S. J. Lee2, J. W. Jeong4 and L. Naigles1, (1)University of Connecticut, Storrs, CT, (2)Seoul Metropolitan Eunpyeong Hospital, Seoul, Korea, Republic of (South), (3)Sogang University, Seoul, Korea, Republic of (South), (4)Korea Institute for Developmental Disabilities, Seoul, Korea, Republic of (South)
Background: Producing wh-questions is frequently problematic for English-learning children with ASD1; comprehension emerges earlier but is nonetheless delayed relative to overall language level2. Researchers disagree on whether these difficulties are attributable to pragmatic vs. grammatical sources. Pragmatically, the desire to communicate with others is impaired in autism; therefore, children may not know when and how to ask questions appropriately3. Grammatically, English wh-questions deviate from the standard SVO word order (‘What did John eat?’ is OSV); therefore, it is possible that children with ASD who have acquired declarative SVO sentences have difficulties learning another order for questions. Korean provides a test of the grammatical perspective, because in Korean wh-questions the canonical word order (SOV) does not change4(‘John-NOM what-ACC eat-did-CM?’)

Objectives: The current study tests whether Korean-learning children with ASD have advantages in wh-question acquisition. If grammatical complexity contributes to English-learning children with ASD’s delay in wh-question acquisition, Korean-learning children with ASD might demonstrate earlier comprehension. In contrast, if the pragmatics of questions is the key source of wh-question difficulties in ASD, children learning Korean should show a similar delay to children learning English. 

Methods:  Typically developing(TD) Korean 2-year-olds (n=15, MA=28.35 months), and 4-year-olds (n=15, MA=51.68 months) participated. Korean children diagnosed with ASD and matched with the TD 2- and 4-year-olds on raw NVIQ scores (Leiter-3) were also recruited: 11 children with ASD (Mage=56.72 months) matched the TD 2-year-olds (TDMean=26.73; ASD-lowMean=23.92) and 9 children with ASD (Mage=70.47 months) matched TD 4-year-olds (TDMean=45.88, ASD-highMean=45.85). Language levels were also comparable by group: (TD 2-year-olds M=267 words, ASD-low M=211.50 words; TD 4-year-olds Mexpressivelanguageage=54.9 months, ASD-high Mexpressivelanguageage=54.9 months). Children viewed a wh-questions video2, 6 in which pairs of familiar items (apple, flower) appeared side-by-side in the baseline trial. Then the items appeared in transitive events (apple hitting flower); finally, they were again shown side-by-side, paired with object-what-questions, subject what-questions, or where questions: (1) (Sa-gwa-ga-Mu-eos-eul-Chyeo-seo “What did the apple hit?”) (2) (Mueosi-Kko-cheul-Chyeo-seo “What hit the flower?”) (3) (Eo-di-e-Kko-chi-I-seo “Where is the apple/flower?”). Children’s eyegaze was coded offline. Percent looking to the named item (‘apple’ in (1)), were analyzed; children who understand the audio were expected to look longer to the correct items (compared to the named items). 

Results: TD 4-year-olds demonstrated significant wh-question comprehension for both subject and object what-questions (ts>4.43, ps<.001); these children correctly looked at the named item less during the ‘what’ than ‘where’ trials. TD 2-year-olds only demonstrated this comprehension for the subject what-questions (t=3.78, p<.001). The ASD-high group demonstrated significant wh-question comprehension for the object what-questions (t= 2.43, p=0.02), but not for subject what-questions (t= 1.08, p>.05), while the ASD-low group did not demonstrate significant comprehension for either question type. 

Conclusions: TD Korean 4-year-olds showed robust comprehension of wh-questions; however, the other groups all demonstrated some difficulties, with TD 2-year-olds succeeding only on subject wh-questions, ASD-high children succeeding only with object-wh-questions, and ASD-low children not succeeding on either. Therefore, the grammatically simpler form of Korean wh-questions do not appear to facilitate earlier acquisition of these forms, leaving open a role for pragmatics.