Symbolic understanding, language learning and engagement in Autism Spectrum Condition – The role of interactivity

Wainwright, Bethany (2020) Symbolic understanding, language learning and engagement in Autism Spectrum Condition – The role of interactivity. PhD thesis, UNSPECIFIED.

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Children with Autism Spectrum Condition (ASC) often experience difficulties engaging with educational tasks (Mayes & Calhoun, 2007) which may impact upon subsequent learning outcomes (Rogers et al., 2011). Technologies that provide opportunities for interaction, such as iPads, are proposed to aid children’s learning and engagement (El Zein et al., 2016; Kucirkova et al., 2014). Interactive iPad applications may also reduce the need for adult involvement through providing real-time feedback and digital voiceover narration (Radesky et al., 2015; Schugar et al., 2013). This may complement the preferred learning style of children with ASC, who often experience low social engagement and wide-ranging social impairments (Pelphrey et al., 2011). However, research to date has not yet investigated the influence of interactivity on the learning and engagement of children with ASC, nor investigated the relationship between engagement and learning in this population. Moreover, there is a lack of consensus regarding whether children with ASC benefit from adult involvement during learning (Adamson et al., 2009; Chevallier et al., 2012). This thesis aims to address the gaps in the literature through four experimental studies. Performance on all tasks was compared to an ability-matched TD control group. The first two studies investigated symbolic understanding. Study 1 examined whether the iconicity of symbols (through animation and interactivity) would influence symbolic understanding. Participants viewed coloured pictorial symbols of a novel object (given a novel name) on an iPad in one of three conditions: static 2D images and either automatically or manually rotating images (providing a three-dimensional context). They were then tested on their symbolic understanding and word learning. Despite no difference in symbol learning or label retention between groups or conditions, the findings suggest that interactive iPad tasks may increase engagement (visual attention) in both typical and atypical populations and greater visual attention may benefit symbol learning and label retention specifically for children with ASC. Study 2 investigated whether providing a label, alongside the function of an object, benefitted symbolic understanding. Participants were shown a picture of an object and given either a novel label alongside a description of the object’s function or a description of the object’s function without a label. Children then interacted with an array of stimuli (pictures and interactive objects) in a mapping test and in a generalisation test for each trial. The results suggest that labelling did not improve symbolic understanding for either group. As children with ASC performed as well as their TD peers in this study, it is possible that a spontaneous measure of symbolic understanding (such as free-play) may reveal competencies in word-picture-referent mapping in ASC. Whereas Study 1 investigated the influence of interactivity on symbol and label learning from a specially designed, single purpose iPad application, Study 3 examined novel label learning and engagement within an interactive e-book, a setting more similar to every-day learning (Bus, 2001; McLeod & McDade, 2011). There was no evidence that learning new vocabulary from storybooks differed between paper-based and electronic mediums of presentation, and engagement was not found to predict performance for either group. However, TD children demonstrated better retention of the new vocabulary items in general, after a two-week delay. Study 4 investigated narrative comprehension and engagement with e-books vs paper-books. This study also manipulated the level of adult involvement by including two e-book conditions – one in which the experimenter narrated the story and one in which the story was narrated through an in-app digital voiceover. There were no significant group or condition differences in narrative comprehension, and both groups demonstrated a similar level of narrative comprehension across the conditions. However, on-task engagement (visual attention) was linked to narrative comprehension in TD children in general. Taken together, these findings suggest that interactivity does not directly influence the learning of children with ASC regarding three areas of language ability found to be weak in this population, neither positively nor negatively. However, interactivity was found to increase engagement – specifically visual attention – in both groups. For children with ASC, visual attention benefitted symbol and label learning from a single purpose application (Study 1), whereas in typical development visual attention benefitted narrative comprehension from an e-book (Study 4). Adult involvement (through labelling and narration) was not found to influence learning in either group. Throughout this thesis, these findings are discussed in terms of theoretical and educational implications, with suggestions for future research.

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Thesis (PhD)
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25 Aug 2020 14:00
Last Modified:
20 Sep 2023 02:06