Brief Report: Animacy and Word Order in Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders
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Individuals with autism or autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are known to have difficulties discriminating animacy and are less likely to attend to animate stimuli, which may underlie the social deficits of autism. For individuals without ASD, animacy also affects word order choices: speakers choose syntactic structures (active vs. passive) that place animate entities as the grammatical subject, as a result of their conceptual salience. This study tested whether highly verbal adults with ASD would show sensitivity to animacy in a picture description task. Results showed that individuals with ASD were as sensitive to animacy as controls, and overwhelmingly placed animate entities as the grammatical subject. One stimulus proved an exception, where only individuals with ASD placed an inanimate entity (a clock) in subject position in preference to an animate one (a boy), which coincides with previous observations that individuals with autism find clocks highly salient. This study provides converging evidence of the role of conceptual salience in word order choices, and furthermore shows animate entities to be highly salient for individuals with ASD, at least as it pertains to these word order choices.
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