New paper: Visual and linguistic narrative comprehension in autism spectrum disorders

My new paper with my collaborator, Emily Coderre, is finally out in Brain and Language. Our paper,”Visual and linguistic narrative comprehension in autism spectrum disorders: Neural evidence for modality-independent impairments,” examines the neurocognition of how meaning is processed in verbal and visual narratives for individuals with autism and neurotypical controls.

We designed this study because there are many reports that individuals with autism do better with visual than verbal information. In the brain literature, we also see reduced brainwaves indicative of semantic processing for language processing in these individuals. So, we asked here: are these observations about semantic processing due to differences between visual and verbal information, or is it due to processing meaning across a sequence.

Thus, we presented both individuals with autism and neurotypical controls with either verbal or visual narratives (i.e., comics, or comics “translated” into text) and then introduced anomalous words/images at their end to see how incongruous information would be processed in both types of stimuli.

We found that individuals with autism had reduced semantic processing (the N400 brainwaves) to the incongruities in both the verbal and visual narratives. This implies that it’s not a deficit in processing of a type of modality, but in a more general type of information processing.

The full paper is available at my Downloadable Papers page, or at this link (pdf).


Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have notable language difficulties, including with understanding narratives. However, most narrative comprehension studies have used written or spoken narratives, making it unclear whether narrative difficulties stem from language impairments or more global impairments in the kinds of general cognitive processes (such as understanding meaning and structural sequencing) that are involved in narrative comprehension. Using event-related potentials (ERPs), we directly compared semantic comprehension of linguistic narratives (short sentences) and visual narratives (comic panels) in adults with ASD and typically-developing (TD) adults. Compared to the TD group, the ASD group showed reduced N400 effects for both linguistic and visual narratives, suggesting comprehension impairments for both types of narratives and thereby implicating a more domain-general impairment. Based on these results, we propose that individuals with ASD use a more bottom-up style of processing during narrative comprehension.

Coderre, Emily L., Neil Cohn, Sally K. Slipher, Mariya Chernenok, Kerry Ledoux, and Barry Gordon. 2018. “Visual and linguistic narrative comprehension in autism spectrum disorders: Neural evidence for modality-independent impairments.” Brain and Language 186:44-59.


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