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Lexical Processing in Toddlers with ASD: Does Weak Central Coherence Play a Role?

Abstract

This study investigated whether vocabulary delays in toddlers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) can be explained by a cognitive style that prioritizes processing of detailed, local features of input over global contextual integration—as claimed by the weak central coherence (WCC) theory. Thirty toddlers with ASD and 30 younger, cognition-matched typical controls participated in a looking-while-listening task that assessed whether perceptual or semantic similarities among named images disrupted word recognition relative to a neutral condition. Overlap of perceptual features invited local processing whereas semantic overlap invited global processing. With the possible exception of a subset of toddlers who had very low vocabulary skills, these results provide no evidence that WCC is characteristic of lexical processing in toddlers with ASD.

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Acknowledgments

We wish to express sincere thanks to the children and their families for participating in this study. Thanks to Corey Ray-Subramanian and Heidi Sindberg for their clinical expertise, Chris Cox for his assistance with statistical programming, and to our research assistants for their help.

Author contributions

SEW conceived of the study, designed the experiment, wrote the grant application that funded this research, and drafted the manuscript. JE and JRS conceived of and helped coordinate the study, designed the experimental task, wrote the grant application that funded this research, aided in interpretation of the findings, and provided critical feedback on the manuscript. EH helped with data collection, performed statistical analyses, assisted with interpretation of the findings, assisted with drafting the manuscript, and provided critical feedback on the manuscript. CEV performed statistical analyses, assisted with interpretation of the findings, assisted with drafting the manuscript, and provided critical feedback on the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Funding

This research was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Graduate School at the University of Wisconsin-Madison: NIDCD R01 DC012513, NICHD R37HD037468, NICHD P30 HD003352 core grant to the Waisman Center, and University of Wisconsin Graduate School Grant #130,416.

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Correspondence to Susan Ellis Weismer.

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Conflict of Interest

None of the authors have any conflicts of interest to declare with respect to this research.

Ethical Approval

All procedures performed in studies involving human participants were in accordance with the ethical standards of the institutional and/or national research committee and with the 1964 Helsinki declaration and its later amendments or comparable ethical standards. This research project was approved by the Institutional Review Board. Parents provided written informed consent for their child prior to enrollment in the study.

Publication Ethics

This manuscript is not currently under submission at another journal; it reports original data. A portion of the data reported in this manuscript have been reported in another manuscript that is in press at JADD (Brief Report: Early lexical comprehension in young children with ASD: Comparing eye-gaze methodology and parent report, doi 10.1007/s10803-016-2747-z); that study addresses an entirely different, methodologically-focused question and includes only partial data from one of the groups in the current study.

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Ellis Weismer, S., Haebig, E., Edwards, J. et al. Lexical Processing in Toddlers with ASD: Does Weak Central Coherence Play a Role?. J Autism Dev Disord 46, 3755–3769 (2016). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-016-2926-y

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Keywords

  • Autism
  • Lexical processing
  • Weak central coherence
  • Receptive vocabulary
  • Toddlers