, Volume 21, Issue 2, pp 177-186

Social scripts for conversational interactions in autism and Down syndrome

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Abstract

The ability of highfunctioning verbal individuals with autism or Down syndrome (DS) to respond appropriately to conversational “social scripts” involving responding to another person's distress was investigated. Subjects were 13 persons with autism and 13 with DS, matched on verbal mental age. During a “tea party” situation, subjects were each told about an examiner's unhappy personal experience (e.g., a stolen wallet). If the subject did not produce an acceptable response after several probes (e.g., “My money's gone; now I can't buy groceries”), the other examiner modeled a sympathetic response and more probes were administered. Subjects with DS gave a significantly greater percentage of relevant suggestions and sympathetic comments, whereas subjects with autism gave a significantly greater percentage of responses relating only to the tea party. Significantly more subjects with autism than DS required modeling. Although a smaller percentage of subjects in the autism group than the DS group exhibited improvement after modeling, some subjects with autism were able to improve, suggesting that they understood some aspects of the social situation (the social script) but needed help formulating an appropriate response.

This work was supported in part by grant Nos. N518448 and N523658 from the National Institutes of Health. The authors thank the participants and their parents, the Autism Society of Houston, and the Parents of Children with Down's Syndrome, Houston. We also thank Michelle Kelley and Robin McEvoy for their work in data collection, Susan Jaedicke, Denise Hardy, and Julia Chien for transcription, Thomas Weiss for data analysis, and Kay R. Lewis for help in recruitment.