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How set switching affects the use of context-appropriate language by autistic and neuro-typical children

Malkin, Louise, Abbot-Smith, Kirsten (2021) How set switching affects the use of context-appropriate language by autistic and neuro-typical children. Autism, 25 (8). pp. 2418-2422. ISSN 1362-3613. (doi:10.1177/13623613211012860) (KAR id:87297)


Autistic children have difficulties in adapting their language for particular listeners and contexts. We asked whether these difficulties are more prominent when children are required to be cognitively flexible, when changing how they have previously referred to a particular object. We compared autistic (N = 30) with neuro-typical five- to seven-year-olds. Each child participated in two conditions. In the Switch condition the same animal had to be re-described across trials to be appropriately informative (e.g. a participant could appropriately describe a picture as ‘dog’ on one trial but later the participant needed to re-describe the same picture as ‘spotty dog’ to differentiate it from a co-present black dog). In the No-Switch condition no picture needed to be re-described. Nonetheless, the conditions were matched regarding the requirement to use both complex (e.g. spotty cat) versus simple expressions (e.g. horse). Autistic children were more over-informative than peers even prior to the requirement to re-describe an animal. Overall, we found a main effect of the Switch Condition and no interaction with Group. Switching a description hinders the ability of children to be appropriately informative. As autistic children are generally less appropriately informative, the requirement to switch leads to particularly poor performance in autism. Lay abstract The way autistic individuals use language often gives the impression that they are not considering how much information listeners need in a given context. The same child can give too much information in one context (e.g. saying ‘the big cup’ with only one cup present) and too little information in another context (e.g. entering a room and announcing ‘the red one’ when the listener has no prior knowledge regarding what this refers to). We asked whether many autistic children particularly struggle to tailor their language appropriately in situations where this means changing how they have previously described something. That is, if a speaker has recently described an object as ‘the cup’, the need to switch to describing it as ‘the big cup’ could hinder the speaker’s ability to use language in a context-appropriate way.We found that switching descriptions indeed makes it more difficult for children to use language in a context-appropriate way, but that this effect did not play out differently for autistic versus neuro-typical children. Autistic children were, however, less likely to provide a context-appropriate amount of information overall than were neuro-typical peers. The combination of these effects meant that when object re-description was required, autistic children only produced an appropriate description half the time. In contrast, without a requirement to redescribe, autistic children could indeed take listener informational needs into account. Applied professionals should consider whether a requirement to change the way the child has previously said something may hinder a child’s ability to communicate effectively.

Item Type: Article
DOI/Identification number: 10.1177/13623613211012860
Uncontrolled keywords: autism; context; appropriate language; referential communication; switching; re-description; children; cognitive flexibility; informativity
Subjects: B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology
B Philosophy. Psychology. Religion > BF Psychology > BF41 Psychology and philosophy
Divisions: Divisions > Division of Human and Social Sciences > School of Psychology
Depositing User: Kirsten Abbot-Smith
Date Deposited: 24 Mar 2021 07:26 UTC
Last Modified: 14 Nov 2022 23:11 UTC
Resource URI: (The current URI for this page, for reference purposes)

University of Kent Author Information

Malkin, Louise.

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Abbot-Smith, Kirsten.

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