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Poster D24, Thursday, November 9, 6:15 – 7:30 pm, Harborview and Loch Raven Ballrooms

Same but different: comprehension of spatial terms in highly verbal individuals with autism and typically developing controls

Agata Bochynska1, Valentin Vulchanov1, Mila Vulchanova1;1Norwegian University of Science and Technology, NTNU Trondheim

Spatial abilities of individuals on the autism spectrum vary to a great extent, from superior (performance on the Block Design or embedded figures tasks) to impaired skills (egocentric transformations, memory for item location). Importantly, spatial language (i.e. descriptions of relations between objects) is a language domain that relies on non-linguistic spatial representations (Hayward & Tarr, 1995; Jackendoff, 1996; Landau & Jackendoff, 1993; Munnich, Landau, & Dosher, 2001) and it can be affected by impairments in the non-verbal domains (e.g Landau & Hoffman, 2005). Despite extensive research on non-verbal visuo-spatial abilities in autism, spatial language use has never been thoroughly investigated in this disorder. Here we are interested in the comprehension of locative spatial terms (e.g. “above”, “below”, “to the left”, “to the right”) focusing on the axial reference system in highly verbal individuals with autism compared to typically developing controls. We have adapted the Comprehension Task from the study by Landau & Hoffman (2005), originally based on the paradigm developed by Hayward & Tarr (1995). In the current study, stimuli were presented on a computer screen and answers were collected by mouse clicks to the Areas of Interest (AOIs) that formed a grid surrounding the reference object (the grid was not visible to the participants). Each trial consisted of a fixation cross, followed by a sentence in Norwegian that was describing the location of the circle, e.g. “Sirkelen er ovenfor firkanten” (“The circle is above the square”), followed by a picture of a blue square in the middle of the screen (the reference object). Participant’s task was to place the circle in relation to the square as described in the sentence by navigating the mouse cursor and clicking on the chosen location. There were in total 26 trials in the experiment: nine with vertical positive terms (V+), 9 with vertical negative terms (V-), 4 with horizontal terms that specify direction (HD, Left or Right) and 4 horizontal neutral terms (HN). Twenty-two highly verbal individuals with autism (diagnosed with high-functioning autism or Asperger’s syndrome) and 22 typically developing controls matched for age and IQ scores participated in the experiment. All participants were native speakers of Norwegian. Results showed that the highest proportions of answers fell into the AOIs along the orthogonal axes of the reference object in both groups. This points to a spared axial reference system in high-functioning autism that supports comprehension of spatial language. However, highly verbal individuals with autism made more errors both in the vertical condition (e.g. by choosing a V- area for the term “way above”) and horizontal condition (e.g. by choosing a Left area for the term “on the right side of”). The majority of these errors represented the wrong direction within the correct axis. We conclude that, overall, representation of the spatial terms in the axial reference system did not differ between typically developing controls and highly verbal individuals with autism; nevertheless the latter group was more prone to make directional errors.

Topic Area: Language Disorders

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