The Use of Prosody During Syntactic Processing in Children and Adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders

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In this study, we employed an eye-gaze paradigm to explore whether children (ages 8–12) and adolescents (ages 12–18) with autism spectrum disorders (ASDs) are able to use prosodic cues to determine the syntactic structure of an utterance. Persons with ASD were compared to typically developing (TD) peers matched on age, IQ, gender, and receptive language abilities. The stimuli were syntactically ambiguous but had a prosodic break that indicated the appropriate interpretation (feel the frog . . . with the feather vs. feel . . . the frog with the feather). We found that all groups were equally sensitive to the initial prosodic cues that were presented. Children and teens with ASD used prosody to interpret the ambiguous phrase as rapidly and efficiently as their TD peers. However, when a different cue was presented in subsequent trials, the younger ASD group was more likely to respond in a manner consistent with the initial prosodic cue rather than the new one. Eye-tracking data indicated that both younger groups (ASD and TD) had trouble shifting their interpretation as the prosodic cue changed, but the younger TD group was able to overcome this interference and produce an action consistent with the prosodic cue.