Author: Rosa M. García-Pérez
Thesis admitted for the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at the University College London, 2004
The aim of this thesis was to examine aspects of conceptual and non-inferential role-taking that are intact or limited in individuals with autism. More specifically, this thesis examined the ability to adopt different psychological perspectives, based on the hypothesis that basic non-inferential role-taking processes, related to the way we identify with the attitudes and feelings of other people, are relatively lacking in individuals with autism. Such processes might be important for the understanding of different perspectives in other people.
The series of studies presented in this thesis investigated role-taking in individuals with autism, relative to chronological and verbal mental age matched groups of participants without autism. The studies focused on three main areas of research: narrative role-taking, deictic understanding, and interpersonal non-verbal communication. In the first study, participants were asked to tell stories from the point of view of different characters. In the second study, a set of tasks examined production and comprehension of verbal and non-verbal deictic expressions. The third study examined the processes of interpersonal engagement and role-taking, by focusing on the nonverbal communication exchanged between two people in the context of a one-to-one interaction.
The results from the studies provide evidence suggesting that individuals with autism show aspects of role-taking ability that are both limited and intact, which may be better explained by an impairment in interpersonal, and non-inferential role-taking, than by cognitive, and conceptual, limitations.
In order to write this thesis, I had to face the difficulty of thinking about, developing, and presenting these ideas without the benefit of my first language, Spanish. As a result, this experience has been both more challenging and more rewarding. I wish to acknowledge some of the people who helped make this thesis possible.
I am deeply indebted to Peter Hobson and Tony Lee, whose friendship, support, encouragement, and brightness have been both invaluable and inspiring. They so patiently helped me with the limited English I had when I first arrived to England, six-and-a-half years ago. I would also like to thank my dear friend Gayathri Chidambi, for being there from the beginning of this thesis, and for providing me with a huge amount of support and encouragement to carry on even through the difficult days. I would also like to express my tremendous gratitude to Beate Hermelin, who gave me the best advice a student can hear, ‘don’t be afraid to be original and different’. I would also like to thank Shula Chiat for her invaluable contributions to the deixis study, and Jessica Meyer for her unconditional help and support throughout the difficult last months of my thesis.
I am very grateful to my parents—Rosa Pérez Valero and Carlos García Merodio— my brother Pablo García Pérez, my cousin Eva Muñoz, and my friend Sandra Valverde, for providing their unwavering support during my Ph.D. I would like to give a heartfelt thank you to my partner, Raúl Rubio Diaz, for starting this journey with me, and for teaching me that with work and dedication one can make a dream come true. I would also like to acknowledge the students and staff of Helen Allison and Edith Borthwick schools whose participation made these studies possible. Last, but not least, I would like to thank Angel Rivière for transforming my entire life beginning with the fortunate day I first heard him speak about autism. His personality, dedication and brightness are, and will always be, an inspiration for me. To him I dedicate this thesis.
CHAPTER ONE. The nature of social role-taking
Role-taking is about being able to stand in the other person’s shoes, and have a sense of what that person sees, thinks and feels. More precisely, is the ability to differentiate the perspectives and attitudes of ourselves and others. This ability unfolds during the first years of life and provides the child with the necessary concepts to think about the thoughts and feelings of other people. This is conceptual role-taking. On the other hand, the appreciation of the subjective orientation of another person (i.e. the intersubjective ‘feel’ of the internal perspective of another person) has been suggested to be another form of role-taking, which is non-inferential in nature. It is noninferential, because it is not reasoned as it were, but felt. Such non-inferential role-taking is embedded in early patterns of coordinated interaction between infant and caregiver, whereby infants are pulled into the psychological stance and attitudes of the adult through feelings. Such mutual coordination is a reflection of the impact of interpersonal connectedness on both child and adult. The present thesis explores the view that this subjective experience of other people’s feeling and attitudes through interpersonal engagement is the basis of the child’s understanding of self and other. The approach to be taken is an investigation of early childhood autism.
Autism is a condition beginning very early in life, and initially described as a ‘disorder of affective contact’ (Kanner, 1943, P.250), in which the capacity for interpersonal relations and emotional connectedness with others is impaired. Children with autism suffer from a profound lack of interpersonal relatedness, one that may have important developmental links to their difficulties with psychological perspective-taking. The purpose of the present thesis is to examine the capacity for several aspects of role-taking among children with autism (relative to children without autism) in order to explore the significance of affective and interpersonal contact for the ability to differentiate and move between psychological perspectives. The limitations in role-taking of children with autism will be examined by focusing on three main areas of research: a) narrative role-taking, b) deictic understanding, and c) interpersonal non-verbal communication.
1.2 The definition of role-taking
Role-taking is broadly defined as the ability to differentiate between different individuals’ psychological perspectives. We can make a distinction between interpersonal and cognitive aspects of this ability. On the one hand, role-taking has been considered to reflect cognitive processes that allow us to think using concepts or representations of the mental states or psychological perspectives of others, referred to as conceptual role-taking. On the other hand, there are aspects of role-taking that are more experiential, and involve an appreciation of the feelings and attitudes of others through personal or intersubjective contact, referred to as non inferential role-taking. Although it is controversial to consider the earliest forms of interpersonal engagement between a caregiver and an infant as expressions of ‘role-taking’, I shall re-examine this area of study from the point of view of role-taking in order to highlight possible continuities between early personto-person relations and later, more explicit, forms of perspective-taking.