Research on Development of Language and Social Behavior
at the CHDR Autism Research Laboratory (ARL)

Autism is a lifelong developmental disorder that disrupts many essential functions, including communication, social behavior, and play. Deficits in social behavior and social understanding, including affect and communication, have long been recognized as an essential component of autism (Kanner, 1943). Persons with autism exhibit a wide variety of socio-emotional problems from infancy onward, such as impairment of the social use of gaze, failure of joint attention interactions, unresponsiveness to social stimulation, a preference for solitary play, lack of interest in peers, difficulty interpreting facial expressions, unusual emotional behavior, and difficulty initiating communication. Deficits such as these are first apparent in the preschool years, but may gradually decrease in severity during the school years, as the child begins to benefit from intervention and from learning to deal with familiar situations and familiar people. However, in general, the social deficits of autism tend to persist through the school years, into adolescence and beyond, while changing the form in which they are manifested and showing the effects of maturation and development of the individual. Thus, even older and more verbally able persons with autism have difficulty forming friendships, behaving appropriately at work, sharing interests with others, conversing appropriately, and managing daily social interactions.

Dr. Katherine Loveland, Director of the UT- Houston CHDR Autism Research Laboratory, has studied development of communication and social behavior in persons with autism since 1979. This program of research, funded by NIMH and later by NIDCD and NICHD since 1982, has led to a number of significant findings. Dr. Loveland’s research on autism has focused primarily on relationships between communication development and social development, with the aim of determining underlying processes of behavioral development that lead to the syndrome of autism. Early research dealt with relationships between joint attention and the acquisition of personal pronouns, and in 1986, the first paper showing that children with autism are impaired in joint attention skills (Loveland & Landry, 1986), a finding that has been confirmed by numerous other investigators. This research also showed that for young verbal autistic children, correct expressive use of I/you pronouns was positively related to the number of kinds of joint attention behaviors used, their developmental sophistication, and the likelihood of responding appropriately to attention-directing gestures by others (Landry & Loveland, 1988). The importance of joint attention deficits in autism is now well-accepted and is implicated in a variety of theoretical approaches to autism.

Later research by Dr. Loveland and colleagues has extended to the study of communication and social skills in more verbally advanced children and adolescents with autism, including the perception of emotion, social situations and intentions as well as aspects of narrative language. Loveland & Tunali (1991) studied the ability of persons with autism to respond appropriately to an examiner’s expression of distress during a snack-break with two examiners. Although subjects with Down syndrome often responded with sympathy or attempts to help, those with autism rarely did; more often they requested food or said something not relevant to the topic of conversation. However, some subjects with autism did produce appropriately empathetic responses after seeing such responses modeled. This study suggested that some persons with autism may be able to detect others’ distress and even to know that a response is required, but may have difficulty, on their own, determining how to respond. If so, then the social difficulties of persons with autism may be based not only on failure to know what others think or feel, but also on a failure to know the implications of others' thoughts and feelings for one's own behavior.

Another series of studies has focused on the perception of emotion within the context of communicative situations. This research has used innovative methods to examine possible differences in social perception by persons with autism that may contribute to difficulties in social communication. Loveland et al (1995) studied autistic persons’ ability to detect intermodal correspondence between facial expressions and vocal/linguistic expressions of affect (emotion). Verbal children and adolescents with autism viewed split-screen video images of actors talking and displaying different emotions on each side of the screen. A single audio track - rhythmically desynchronized from both sides - was played from a speaker below. Subjects thus must use affective information to choose which side of the display went with the audio track. With effects of verbal level and IQ controlled, subjects with autism were less able than those with Down syndrome to detect intermodal correspondence for emotion, but not for inanimate objects. Results suggested there may be basic emotion perception deficits in higher-functioning persons with autism that can be detected with tasks such as this one.

Related studies have found both similarities and differences in the ways that persons with and without autism understand and express emotion. Loveland et al (1994) found that persons with autism could produce elicited facial expressions by imitating or when given an emotion label, but produced fewer recognizable expressions than a comparable group with Down syndrome, particularly when given only a label and no model to imitate. One possible explanation for this difficulty is a specific deficit in connecting verbal labels with facial expressions (facial affect anomia) resulting from connections of the brain's left hemisphere language processing areas with medial temporal lobe structures. Alternatively, posed, as opposed to spontaneous, facial expressions may be more cortically mediated, suggesting possible impairment of prefrontal cortex in this case. Loveland et al (1997) examined the involvement of verbal and nonverbal information in autistic persons’ labeling of simple emotions. Subjects judged emotions in video clips where emotion was expressed verbally, nonverbally or both. Persons with autism did not differ in accuracy or pattern of performance from those without autism of similar verbal level, suggesting that they can derive information about emotion from both verbal and nonverbal sources and that they do so in ways similar to others of comparable developmental level. Loveland et al (1998) studied autistic and non-autistic persons’ judgments of video displays where verbal and nonverbal information for simple emotions conflicted. As in the 1997 study, we found that persons with and without autism of similar verbal level tended to use verbal and nonverbal information to identify simple emotions in much the same ways.

Our recent studies of social perception in verbal persons with autism indicate that they were often able to make correct judgments about whether or not a social behavior is appropriate (Loveland et al, 2001). However, compared with people without autism who are similar in age and ability, they had more difficulty identifying inappropriate language than inappropriate nonverbal behavior. Moreover, when asked to explain why certain behaviors were wrong, people with autism were less likely to give explanations that involved social norms and principles and more likely to say things that were not relevant. At the same time, another of our studies found that people with autism had difficulty identifying which ones of a set of videotaped children looked like they were willing to share a candy bar, whereas comparison subjects made judgments that were similar to those of adults viewing the same tapes.

Taken together, our studies suggest persons with autism can obtain information about other people’s emotions and social behaviors from the same sources as other people (i.e., both verbal and nonverbal channels), but they may have special difficulty in interpreting what they perceive and using it to guide their own behavior. These studies also suggest that more able people with autism can often make social judgments similar to those of other people of their age and ability level, but that they may have more difficulty when language is involved or when the information to be perceived is more subtle. In addition, our results underscore the importance of verbal level in success on tasks of emotion recognition and social perception. Our studies and those of others show that differences between persons with and without autism are reduced when variance associated with verbal level is controlled, indicating that language plays a significant role in these tasks, and perhaps also that autistic persons can employ verbal strategies to succeed. In particular, emotion recognition tasks that use labeling as the response may provide an advantage to verbal persons with autism who have learned to label simple emotions with some accuracy, but who may not be adept at identifying more complex mental states or at perceiving the functional significance of others' mental states for regulating their own behaviors.