Autism Journal Club

Conversational gestures in autism spectrum disorders: Asynchrony but not decreased frequency

Conversational gestures are the spontaneous hand movements accompanying speech. They perform many functions, including helping conversationalists with turntaking, providing visual information, and highlighting particular ideas. Clinical impressions suggest that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) gesture less. While research has established that young children with ASD are less likely to point to draw other people’s attention to objects, it has shown few differences for other types of gestures. Why is there a difference between clinical and research impressions? Perhaps clinicians notice differences in gesture quality, or in how gestures are combined with speech. A group of adolescents with ASD and average intelligence, and a group of typically developing adolescents (of similar intelligence), told a story; we then analyzed their speech and gestures. Stories from the two groups were of similar length, and included similar numbers of gestures; however, the ASD group’s stories were rated as less clear, and their gestures and speech were less coordinated. Overall, better coordination of gestures and speech was related to telling better stories. The typically developing teens whose stories were rated as more clear, also produced more gestures, suggesting that gestures improved the quality of their stories. This was not true for the teens with ASD; however, their story quality was related to autism symptoms, such that adolescents with more autism symptoms told stories that were rated as less engaging. The paper discusses what these findings mean for communication, more generally, in autism spectrum disorders, and what they mean for neuropsychological processes.