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Online processing of sentences containing noun modification in young children with high-functioning autism

Bavin, E. L., Prendergast, L. A., Kidd, E., Baker, E., & Dissanayake, C. (2016). Online processing of sentences containing noun modification in young children with high-functioning autism. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 51(2), 137-147. doi:10.1111/1460-6984.12191.
Background: There is variability in the language of children with autism, even those who are high functioning. However, little is known about how they process language structures in real time, including how they handle potential ambiguity, and whether they follow referential constraints. Previous research with older autism spectrum disorder (ASD) participants has shown that these individuals can use context to access rapidly the meaning of ambiguous words. The severity of autism has also been shown to influence the speed in which children with ASD access lexical information. Aims: To understand more about how children with ASD process language in real time (i.e., as it unfolds). The focus was the integration of information and use of referential constraints to identify a referent named in a sentence. Methods & Procedures: We used an eye-tracking task to compare performance between young, high-functioning children with autism (HFA) and children with typical development (TD). A large sample of 5–9-year-old children (mean age = 6;8 years), 48 with HFA and 56 with TD participated; all were attending mainstream schools. For each item participants were shown a display of four images that differed in two dimensions. Each sentence contained an adjective and noun that restricted the choice from four to two (the target and competitor), followed by a prepositional phrase (e.g., the blue square with dots); this added modifying information to provide a unique description of the target. We calculated looking time at the target, the competitor and the two distractors for each 200 ms time interval as children processed the sentence and looked at the display. Generalized estimating equations were used to carry out repeated-measures analyses on the proportion of looking time to target and competitor and time to fixate to target. Outcomes & Results: Children in both groups (HFA and TD) looked at the target and competitor more than at the distractors following the adjective and noun and following the modifying information in the prepositional phrase more at the target. However, the HFA group was significantly slower in both phases and looked proportionally less at the target. Across the sample, IQ and language did not affect the results; however, age and attention had an impact. The older children showed an advantage in processing the information as did the children with higher attention scores. Conclusions & Implications: The HFA group took longer than the TD group to integrate the disambiguating information provided in the course of processing a sentence and integrate it with the visual information, indicating that for the ASD group incremental processing was not as advanced as for children with ASD, and they were less sensitive to referential conventions. Training for young children with ASD on the use of referential conventions and available contextual clues may be of benefit to them in understanding the language they hear.
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