cSCAN Rounds

Audience design in children with and without autism

Research suggests that children can adapt their descriptions depending on information mutually shared with their addressee, or common ground (e.g., Nadig & Sedivy, 2002). However, the adherence to common ground may not necessarily result from audience design (Wardlow-Lane & Ferreira, 2008). To explore the processing mechanisms that underlie the children's use of common ground, Experiment 1 examined referential communication in children (mean 8 years), with and without autism. Autistic and non-autistic children avoided referential ambiguity equally often by using size adjectives (as in "small door") when the size-contrasting referential alternative (e.g., a larger door) was also visible to their addressee, that is, when the size contrast was in the common ground. However, autistic children produced more size adjectives when the size contrast was invisible to the addressee, so the size contrast was part of the child’s privileged knowledge. Experiment 2 further showed that although autistic and non-autistic adolescents (mean 13 years) did not differ in the common ground condition, autistic adolescents produced more size adjectives that were redundant to their addressee in the privileged ground condition. Furthermore, adolescents avoided referential ambiguity as well as adults in the common ground condition, but they produced descriptions that were redundant to their addressee more frequently than adults. The results thus indicate that avoiding redundancy for the addressee involves different processing mechanisms from unique identification, involving social and pragmatic skills that lack in children, particularly those with autism.