Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 18, Issue 2, pp 241–257

The understanding and use of interpersonal gestures by autistic and Down's syndrome children

  • Anthony Attwood
  • Uta Frith
  • Beate Hermelin


Autistic adolescents with mild, moderate, and severe degrees of mental retardation, Down's syndrome adolescents, and clinically normal 4-, 5-, and 6-year-old children were compared in their ability to understand a set of simple instrumental gestures. Almost all gestures were perfectly understood, that is, correctly responded to, by normal children from age 5 onwards, and by all the handicapped groups, regardless of diagnosis or degree of retardation. However, the ability to initiate such gestures on verbal request was generally less good, especially in the less able autistic groups. The same subjects were unobtrusively observed in the playground and during mealtime at their schools. Peer interactions were least frequent in the autistic subjects, regardless of degree of mental retardation. However, relative to interaction frequency, the autistic group used nonverbal instrumental gestures as a means of communication to the same extent as the other groups. Unlike Down's syndrome adolescents, or normal preschool children, no autistic adolescent ever used expressive gestures.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Argyle, M. (1975).Bodily Communication, London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  2. Asperger, H. (1944). Die “autistischen Psychopathen” im Kindesalter.Archiv für Psychiatrie und Nervenkrankheiten, 117, 76–136.Google Scholar
  3. Attwood, A. J. (1984).The gestures of autistic children. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, England.Google Scholar
  4. Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1985). Does the autistic child have a “theory of mind”?Cognition, 21, 37–46.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Baron-Cohen, S., Leslie, A. M., & Frith, U. (1986). Mechanical, behavioural and intentional understanding of picture stories in autistic children.British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 4, 113–125.Google Scholar
  6. Bartak, L., Rutter, M., & Cox, A. (1975). A comparative study of infantile autism and specific developmental receptive language disorder. I. The children.British Journal of Psychiatry, 126, 127–145.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Barten, S. (1979). The development of gesture. In N. Smith & M. Franklin (Eds.),Symbolic functioning in childhood. New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  8. Carr, E. G. (1979). Teaching autistic children to use sign language: Some research issues.Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 9, 345–360.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Carr, E. G., & Kologinsky, E. (1983). Acquisition of sign language by autistic children II: Spontaneity and generalization effects.Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 16, 297–314.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Clark, P., & Rutter, M. (1981). Autistic children's responses to structure and to interpersonal demands.Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 11, 201–271.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  11. Curcio, F. (1978). Sensorimotor functioning and communication in mute autistic children.Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 8, 281–292.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Curcio, F., & Piserchia, E. (1978). Pantomimic representations in psychotic children.Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 8, 181–189.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Doll, E. A. (1935). The measurement of social competence.Proceedings of the American Association of Mental Deficiency, 40, 103–126.Google Scholar
  14. Doyle, A. B., Connolly, J., & Rivest, L. P. (1980). The effect of playmate familiarity on the social interaction of young children.Child Development, 51, 217–223.Google Scholar
  15. Ekman, P., & Friesen, W. (1972). Hand movements.Journal of Communication, 22, 353–374.Google Scholar
  16. Gibson, D. (1978).Down's syndrome. The psychology of mongolism. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Greenwald, C. A., & Leonard, L. B. (1979). Communicative and sensorimotor development of Down's syndrome children.American Journal of Mental Deficiency, 84, 296–303.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  18. Hammes, J. G. W., & Langdell, T. (1981). Precursors of symbol formation and childhood autism.Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 11, 331–345.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Hermelin, B., & O'Connor, N. (1985). Logico-affective states and non-verbal language. In E. Schopler, & G. B. Mesibov (Eds.),Communication problems in autism, New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  20. Hobson, R. P. (1986a). The autistic child's appraisal of expressions of emotion.Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 27, 321–342.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Hobson, R. P. (1986b). The Autistic child's appraisal of expressions of emotions: a further study.Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 27, 671–680.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact.Nervous Child, 2, 217–250.Google Scholar
  23. Kumin, L., & Lazar, M. (1974). Gestural communication in pre-school children.Perceptual and Motor Skills, 38, 708–710.Google Scholar
  24. Langdell, T. (1981). Face perception.An approach to the study of autism. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of London, England.Google Scholar
  25. Lord, C. (1984). The development of peer relations in children with Autism. In F. J. Morrison, C. Lord, & D. P. Keating (Eds.),Advances in applied developmental psychology, (pp. 165–229). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  26. Lord, C., Merrin, D. J., Vest, L. O., & Kelly, K. M. (1983). Communicative behavior of adults with an autistic four-year-old boy and his nonhandicapped twin brother.Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 13, 1–17.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  27. McHale, S. M. (1983). Social interactions of autistic and nonhandicapped children during free play.American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 53, 81–91.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. McHale, S. M., Simeonsson, R. J., Marcus, L. M., & Olley, J. G. (1980). The social and symbolic quality of autistic children's communication.Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 10, 299–310.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Pototzky, C., & Grigg, A. E. (1942). A revision of the prognosis in mongolism.American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 12, 503.Google Scholar
  30. Ricks, D. M., & Wing, L. (1976). Language, communication and the use of symbols. In L. Wing (Ed.),Early childhood autism. Oxford, England: Pergamon.Google Scholar
  31. Rutter, M. (1978). Diagnosis and definition. In M. Rutter & E. Schopler (Eds.),Autism: A reappraisal of concepts and treatment. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  32. Rutter, M. (1983). Cognitive deficits in the pathogenesis of autism.Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 4, 513–531.Google Scholar
  33. Rutter, M., & Bartak, L. (1973). Special educational treatment of autistic children: A comparative study: II. Follow-up findings and implications for services.Journal of Child Psychiatry, 14, 241–270.Google Scholar
  34. Rutter, M., & Schopler, E. (Eds.) (1978).Autism: A reappraisal of concepts and treatment. New York: Plenum Press.Google Scholar
  35. Volkmar, F. R., & Cohen, D. J. (1982). A hierarchical analysis of patterns of noncompliance in autistic and behavior disturbed children.Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 12, 35–42.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. Wing, L. (1981). Asperger's syndrome: A clinical account.Psychological Medicine, 11, 115–129.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Wing, L., & Gould, J. (1979). Severe impairments of social interaction and associated abnormalities in children: Epidemiology and classification.Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 9, 11–29.PubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Plenum Publishing Corporation 1988

Authors and Affiliations

  • Anthony Attwood
    • 1
  • Uta Frith
    • 2
  • Beate Hermelin
  1. 1.Intellectual Handicap ServicesBrisbane
  2. 2.MRC Cognitive Development UnitLondon

Personalised recommendations