Improving the use of mental state verbs by children with Autism Spectrum Disorders in two narrative production tasks: Story retelling and spontaneous story generation

Mary Ann Hammon, Madeline Williams, Sydney Sneddon, Brigid Crotty

Abstract


Children diagnosed with ASD often experience marked difficulty in the comprehension and production of narrative discourse that extends well into their adolescent and adult years (Asberg, 2010; Diehl, Bennetto, & Young, 2006; Eigsti, Marchena, Schuh, & Kelley, 2010; Kelley, Paul, Fein, & Naigles, 2006). These narrative difficulties appear to be linked directly to the core symptoms of ASD that manifest in failure to plan using information from multiple sources, a hyper-focus on details at the expense of gist-level propositions and limited use of mental state and causal language to encode goals and motivations of characters (Capps, Losh, & Thurber, 2000). Theory of Mind (ToM) accounts propose that a core deficit in ASD is an inability to infer the emotional or mental states of others. Deficits in ToM have been shown to significantly impair one’s ability to engage in ongoing social interactions and to develop the linguistic knowledge (e.g., mental state and causal language) necessary for understanding the relationship between events in discourse (Eigsti, Marchena, Schuh, & Kelley, 2010). Mental state and causal language is necessary for the establishment of a causal framework to link story grammar elements together.

The overarching goal of this project was to test whether a program designed to teach narrative language skills was effective for increasing the use of mental state and causal language for children with high functioning autism (ASD). A multiple baseline across participants study was conducted with 5 children with ASD (ages 8-12). Intervention was provided for two 50-minute individual sessions per week for a total of 21-33 sessions (depending on the student). Children’s spontaneous stories and story retells, collected weekly, were analyzed for the use of mental state and causal language before, during and after intervention. All of the children made clinically significant gains after participating in the instruction, with clear changes in the use and complexity of mental state verbs during both types of narrative production tasks (story retell, spontaneous generation). The gains were maintained after intervention was discontinued.


Keywords


Children; Autism; Mental Verbs

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