Effects of verbal and non-verbal modality on
story re-tellings by persons with and without autism.

Loveland, Katherine A., Hentges, Beth, Gibbs, M. Cullen, Pearson, Deborah A., and Tunali-Kotoski, Belgin. Effects of verbal and non-verbal modality on story re-tellings by persons with and without autism. Paper presented to the biennial meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Albuquerque, New Mexico, April 15 - 18, 1999.

Autism is a developmental disorder characterized by impaired social interaction and communication as well as repetitive behaviors (APA, 1994). Numerous studies have shown that language in autism is affected by social deficits; however, few studies have investigated narratives. Previous studies have found that narratives in autism suggested poor awareness of the listener=s needs for information or loss of story schema, as well as difficulty understanding the mental states of story characters. High-functioning people with autism (HFA) may also have special difficulty understanding the meaning of gesture and other nonverbal communicative behaviors. If so, they may have difficulty understanding or re-telling stories nonverbally. However, because studies have used varying methods, little is known about the differential effects of verbal and nonverbal content on story-retellings by HFAs. The present study examined verbal and non-verbal story-telling in HFA.

Forty-five children and adolescents (21 Autism/PDD (DSM-III-R) and 23 Non-autism) participated. All were high-functioning and the groups were similar in Verbal IQ (Table 1). Participants watched four brief videotaped stories, each presented in either a nonverbal (puppets, no words) or verbal (narrator only) format. After viewing each story, participants either re-told the story (Atell@ response) or enacted it with puppets (Aact@ response), resulting in four presentation/response conditions (Verbal/Tell, Nonverbal/Tell, Verbal/Act, Nonverbal/Act) given in counterbalanced order. Responses were videotaped and coded by trained coders according to a system used by Loveland, Fletcher and Bailey (1990). Coding categories captured problems in story structure, in order to determine whether effects of verbal and nonverbal presentation and response conditions differed between groups. Recoding of 10% of the data for reliability yielded a Kappa statistic of .

Three-way ANOVAs were used (Group x Presentation x Response), with frequencies of error types as the dependent measures (Table 2). Across conditions, the Autism group made significantly more errors of omission (a gross measure of story recall) than the Non-autism group. Also, praxis errors (difficulty organizing and carrying out actions with puppets; act-response only) were more frequent in the Autism than the Non-Autism group. The Autism group was significantly more likely to repeat part of the story when responding verbally, while the Non-autism group was more likely to do this when responding nonverbally. Omissions of story events were significantly more frequent for both groups in verbal than in nonverbal responses, regardless of presentation condition. Also, omissions were more frequent when the presentation and response conditions did not match, with the most difficult condition being Nonverbal/Tell and the least difficult Nonverbal/Act.

These results do not suggest strong differences between high functioning persons with and without autism in structural aspects of story re-telling. HFA participants were surprisingly able to tell and enact stories. However, difficulties in praxis seen in the Aact@ responses of the Autism group may reflect problems in motor coordination and/or executive functioning, while greater omissions may reflect poorer comprehension. The lack of group differences in use of bizarre language or in loss of story schema, which have been found in past studies, may reflect the Autism group=s higher verbal IQ and greater acculturation than participants in past studies. Additional, qualitative aspects of story narratives will also be discussed.