|Linguistic coding of space in mandarin-speaking children with and without autism
|Peng, Gang (CBS)
|Autistic children -- Language
Children -- Language
Cognition in children
Hong Kong Polytechnic University -- Dissertations
|Department of Chinese and Bilingual Studies
|xvii, 220 pages : color illustrations
|The present dissertation is concerned with the interpretation of spatial terms in Mandarin-speaking autistic children, compared to non-autistic children matched on receptive language ability. Spatial terms allow people to translate visuospatial perception into linguistic representations. Atypical visuospatial processing has been frequently reported in autistic people, which leads to certain predictions about their interpretation of spatial terms. Given that the interpretation of spatial terms is subjective to cross-cultural variations and that previous research mainly focused on individuals from western countries, the aim of this dissertation was to examine the interpretation of spatial terms in Mandarin-speaking autistic children. There are different types of spatial frames of reference (FoRs) underlying the interpretation of spatial terms. Three types — relative FoR, intrinsic FoR, and deictic FoR — were addressed in a collection of experimental studies.
The first study investigated Mandarin-speaking autistic and non-autistic children's interpretation of projective spatial terms ("front", "behind", "left", and "right") when locating an object in relation to an object without inherent orientation, where the underlying spatial FoR is the relative FoR. There are three variants of the relative FoR: translation, reflection, and rotation. Results showed that Mandarin-speaking non-autistic children, like Mandarin-speaking adults, accepted both translation and reflection variants of the relative FoR when evaluating the use of projective spatial terms in descriptions of a scene, while Mandarin-speaking autistic children primarily relied on the translation variant. These findings suggest that Mandarin-speaking autistic children have difficulty in accepting multiple spatial FoRs, and the difficulty might be attributed to their theory of mind deficit.
The second study investigated the interpretation of projective spatial terms that were used to describe the position of an object in relation to an object with inherent orientation, to which both relative and intrinsic FoRs are applicable. Results showed that both autistic and non-autistic Mandarin-speaking children chiefly adopted the intrinsic FoR when the reference object had inherent front and back, as has been observed in Mandarin-speaking adults. There was no evidence for spontaneous activation of both intrinsic and relative FoRs in Mandarin speakers, which differs from the individuals in the West. The findings suggest that Mandarin-speaking autistic children, like their non-autistic peers, are more sensitive to the intrinsic FoR than to the relative FoR in the context where the reference object has inherent orientation. Additionally, the activation of the intrinsic FoR was found to be affected by the reference object's feature [ ± social] and associated with theory of mind understanding.
The third study examined Mandarin-speaking autistic and non-autistic children's knowledge of spatial demonstratives ("this", "that", "here", and "there") that encode spatial relationships depending upon the deictic FoR. Autistic children were found to perform worse than their non-autistic peers in comprehending the spatial demonstratives based on the deictic FoR in the condition where the children and the speaker (experimenter) had different perspectives, but not in the condition where they shared the same perspective. The findings suggest that autistic children have difficulties with spatial demonstratives in a certain situation. Furthermore, theory of mind understanding and executive function played a role in the interpretation of spatial demonstratives, suggesting impairment in the comprehension of spatial demonstratives might be linked to cognitive impairment.
The current dissertation offers evidence of selective atypical understanding of spatial terms previously overlooked in research on autism. The dissertation also highlights the effects of cognitive factors (theory of mind and/or executive function) on the interpretation of spatial terms. The dissertation's findings call for an increase in awareness among therapists and guardians of the profile of spatial language in autistic children. On a practical level, a spatial language-related training program could be included as part of speech intervention schemes. Additionally, intervention schemes targeting speech in autistic children could involve cognitive aspects such as theory of mind and executive function.
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