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Autism. 2015 Jul;19(5):570-9. doi: 10.1177/1362361314536634. Epub 2014 Jun 10.

Iconicity influences how effectively minimally verbal children with autism and ability-matched typically developing children use pictures as symbols in a search task.

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Lancaster University, UK
Lancaster University, UK.


Previous word learning studies suggest that children with autism spectrum disorder may have difficulty understanding pictorial symbols. Here we investigate the ability of children with autism spectrum disorder and language-matched typically developing children to contextualize symbolic information communicated by pictures in a search task that did not involve word learning. Out of the participant's view, a small toy was concealed underneath one of four unique occluders that were individuated by familiar nameable objects or unfamiliar unnamable objects. Children were shown a picture of the hiding location and then searched for the toy. Over three sessions, children completed trials with color photographs, black-and-white line drawings, and abstract color pictures. The results reveal zero group differences; neither children with autism spectrum disorder nor typically developing children were influenced by occluder familiarity, and both groups' errorless retrieval rates were above-chance with all three picture types. However, both groups made significantly more errorless retrievals in the most-iconic photograph trials, and performance was universally predicted by receptive language. Therefore, our findings indicate that children with autism spectrum disorder and young typically developing children can contextualize pictures and use them to adaptively guide their behavior in real time and space. However, this ability is significantly influenced by receptive language development and pictorial iconicity.


Picture Exchange Communication System; autism; iconicity; symbols; understanding pictures

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