A Novel Cause for Communication Deficits in Autism

An international team of researchers revealed that the communicative alterations characteristic of autism are due to difficulties in converging on a shared meaning with a communicative partner. This finding challenges previous accounts that trace communicative alterations in autism to perceptual biases, lack of social motivation, or cognitive perseveration.

The study is about the ability of human minds to converge on a common ground during social interaction; we share our thoughts with other minds all day, every day, but we do not understand how.

Context of use
We might think that humans understand one another because they share the same set of communicative signals such as words, gestures, and facial expressions. However, that intuition neglects the extreme flexibility with which we employ our communicative signals in everyday social interaction. For instance, we can readily use the word "bank" to refer to money, a basketball shot, or a place to fish. Our interlocutor can usually grasp our intended meaning at its first occurrence, thanks to its context of use in an ongoing interaction.

Communication in the lab
Motivated to understand how people in dialogue rapidly achieve this mutual understanding, Arjen Stolk and colleagues devised a creative two-player computer game in which pairs of autistic individuals communicated using shape movements on a computer screen. The novel, non-verbal interactive setting eliminated the use of pre-existing conventions such as language and gestures, providing the researchers reliable access to the process of how two humans converge on a shared meaning in communication.

Communicative misalignment
Despite otherwise indistinguishable performance from neurotypical pairs, pairs with autistic individuals had lower communicative success in the game. This communicative impairment was not simply a consequence of reduced cognitive flexibility or social motivation, as individuals with autism showed a similar propensity to change their signals following a misunderstanding with their partner. Crucially, however, the researchers found that individuals with autism struggled to assign meanings to signals based on the unique communicative context established through past interaction with their partners.

This study sheds new light on a deep-seated deficit in autism, explaining, for instance, why individuals with autism experience difficulties in context-dependent situations such as ironic or sarcastic conversation. More generally, the study redefines human communication as more than just the transmission of signals. Instead, communication requires communicators to align their knowledge of the interaction with one another, providing critical context for interpreting the meaning of each other’s signals.

Full article title: Communicative Misalignment in Autism Spectrum Disorder
Authors: Harshali Wadge, Rebecca Brewer, Geoff Bird, Ivan Toni & Arjen Stolk
URL: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0010945219300188
Contact: astolk@berkeley.edu

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