Narrative comprehension in 4–7-year-old children with autism: testing the Weak Central Coherence account

by Heather Joy Nuske, Edith L Bavin
International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders ()
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Abstract

Background: Despite somewhat spared structural language development in high-functioning autism, communica-tive comprehension deficits persist. Comprehension involves the integration of meaning: global processing is required. The Weak Central Coherence theory suggests that individuals with autism are biased to process informa-tion locally. This cognitive style may impair comprehension, particularly if inferencing is required. However, task performance may be facilitated by this cognitive style if local processing is required. Aims: The current study was designed to examine the extent to which the 'weak central coherence' cognitive style affects comprehension and inferential processing of spoken narratives. The children with autism were expected to perform comparatively poorer on inferences relating to event scripts and comparatively better on inferences requiring deductive reasoning. Methods & Procedures: Fourteen high-functioning children with autism were recruited from databases of various autism organizations (mean age = 6:7, 13 males, one female) and were matched on a receptive vocabulary and a picture-completion task with 14 typically developing children recruited from a local childcare centre (mean age = 4:10, seven males, seven females). The children were read short stories and asked questions about the stories. Outcomes & Results: Results indicated that the children with autism were less able to make inferences based on event scripts, but the groups did not differ significantly on inferences requiring deductive logical reasoning. Despite similar group performance on questions relating to the main idea of the stories, only for the typically developing group was good performance on extracting the main idea of the narratives significantly correlated with performance on all other comprehension tasks. Conclusions & Implications: Findings provide some support for the Weak Central Coherence theory and demonstrate that young children with autism do not spontaneously integrate information in order to make script inferences, as do typically developing children. These findings may help to explain communicative problems of young children with autism and can be applied to intervention programme development. More research on the link between a 'weak central coherence' cognitive style and communicative comprehension in autism will be valuable in understanding the comprehension deficits associated with autism. What this paper adds Research shows that children with autism have specific difficulties with verbal comprehension, in particular inferen-tial processing. Also, children with autism are characterized by a detailed focused cognitive style, a 'weak central coherence'. Little research on the relatedness of these two aspects in autism has been conducted; therefore, this study was conducted to further knowledge of language-processing difficulties in autism. Results show that children with autism did not create a conceptual framework based on the main idea of the stories in the same manner as typically developing children. Children with autism were found to have specific difficulties answering questions of verbal narratives relating to event scripts. It seems children with autism have difficulty chunking information in a meaningful way, which may lead to impaired comprehension in communicative contexts. This information is useful for intervention programme development for young children with autism.

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