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Interpretations of meaningful and ambiguous hand gestures in autistic and non-autistic adults: A norming study

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Abstract

Gestures are ubiquitous in human communication, and a growing but inconsistent body of research suggests that people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may process co-speech gestures differently from neurotypical individuals. To facilitate research on this topic, we created a database of 162 gesture videos that have been normed for comprehensibility by both autistic and non-autistic raters. These videos portray an actor performing silent gestures that range from highly meaningful (e.g., iconic gestures) to ambiguous or meaningless. Each video was rated for meaningfulness and given a one-word descriptor by 40 autistic and 40 non-autistic adults, and analyses were conducted to assess the level of within- and across-group agreement. Across gestures, the meaningfulness ratings provided by raters with and without ASD correlated at r > 0.90, indicating a very high level of agreement. Overall, autistic raters produced a more diverse set of verbal labels for each gesture than did non-autistic raters. However, measures of within-gesture semantic similarity among the responses provided by each group did not differ, suggesting that increased variability within the ASD group may have occurred at the lexical rather than semantic level. This study is the first to compare gesture naming between autistic and non-autistic individuals, and the resulting dataset is the first gesture stimulus set for which both groups were equally represented in the norming process. This database also has broad applicability to other areas of research related to gesture processing and comprehension. The video database and accompanying norming data are available on the Open Science Framework.

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Data availability

The data and materials pertaining to this study are available in the Open Science Framework repository at: https://osf.io/a3pg7/

Code availability

The codes used to process and analyze these data are available at the link above.

Notes

  1. We asked participants whether they knew ASL in case any of our gestures were unintentionally similar to signs. ASL signs are distinctly different from hand gestures in that they are structured similarly to spoken language and have modality-specific differences (Özyürek & Woll, 2019) but they can sometimes share physical or motoric similarity with iconic gestures. Although 21 autistic and 29 non-autistic participants reported some exposure to ASL, none were fluent and thus included in all analyses.

  2. Information about the range of AoAs associated with responses to each specific gesture is available on the OSF page associated with this study.

  3. Of the 12,699 one-word responses included in analyses, less than 1% (n = 45) did not appear in the GloVe corpus. There was no statistical difference between responses that were in the GloVe corpus versus all responses for entropy or diversity scores. To maintain consistency with semantic similarity scores (which can only be calculated from words in the corpus) we report entropy and diversity calculated from responses that appeared in the GloVe corpus. All norms are reported for each gesture in the OSF database, including the total number of responses provided and how many of those responses appeared in GloVe.

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Acknowledgements

We thank Cody Capps, Cristen Cooper, Dylan Howie, Brooke Montgomery, and Adrienne Wyble for assistance with video editing and data processing. A preliminary version of this research was presented at the 2021 Annual Meeting of the Cognitive Science Society.

Author’s Note

Language—and even the diagnosis—of autism spectrum disorder has evolved over time and will likely continue to do so. Terminology once considered appropriate is now outdated (e.g., low-functioning and high-functioning). Once a separate diagnosis from Autism, “Asperger’s syndrome” was removed from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual (DSM-V) in the American Psychiatric Association’s update in 2013. There is a growing movement to cease using the eponym altogether due to Hans Asperger’s involvement in the inhumane treatment and killing of sick and disabled children during World War II in Nazi-controlled Austria (Czech, 2018; Juntti, 2021; Reese, 2018). Recently, there has been a shift in the autism research field to move away from strictly using person-first language (i.e., person with autism) and toward identity-first language (i.e., autistic person; Botha et al., 2021; Vivanti, 2020). This is an ongoing conversation sparked by voices from the #ActuallyAutistic community and autistic self-advocates, whose members are proud of their neurodiversity and autistic identity (e.g., Leadbitter et al., 2021).

It is the authors’ sincere effort to use appropriate and inclusive language. We opted to use both identity-first and person-first language to respect the preference of autistic people and because part of our research interest concerns autism diagnosis status. Additionally, we recognize that some of the language from previous works cited here are no longer current (e.g., Asperger’s syndrome). Finally, in a good-faith effort to understand autism and improve interventions and treatments, most autism research focuses on symptomology. However, many autistic people have voiced frustration over the tendency for researchers to focus on “a collection of deficits” (Bridge, 2018) while overlooking characteristics of worth and merit. We would like to emphasize that the idiosyncratic responses used to describe gestures by autistic participants in this study—and the development of a precocious vocabulary more broadly—are such features of autism that may be considered strengths rather than symptoms.

Funding

This work was funded by a Louisiana Board of Regents Grant to HDL.

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Correspondence to Brianna E. Cairney.

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The authors have no conflicts of interest or competing interests to declare.

Ethics approval

This study was approved by Louisiana State University’s Institutional Review Board.

Consent to participate

All participants gave informed consent to participate. Participants’ identities were not disclosed to the researchers and the dataset contains no identifying information.

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Open Practices Statement

The gesture videos and corresponding norming data, along with data processing and analysis scripts, are available at https://osf.io/a3pg7/. For questions concerning the database or access to the materials, contact Brianna E. Cairney at bcairn2@lsu.edu. This study was not pre-registered.

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Cairney, B.E., West, S.H., Haebig, E. et al. Interpretations of meaningful and ambiguous hand gestures in autistic and non-autistic adults: A norming study. Behav Res (2023). https://doi.org/10.3758/s13428-023-02268-1

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