Cognitive and situational factors in the social behaviour of autistic children
Experiment 1 was concerned with factors related to negativism in autistic children, where negativism was defined as the consistent avoidance of a correct response in a multiple choice discrimination task. A procedure employed in an earlier study of this phenomenon (Cowan, Hodinott and Wright, 1965) was modified to allow a more detailed examination of patterning of the child's responses. A positive relationship was found between use of spoken language and successful performance of the task. However, no child was negativistic. Of the 27 children tested,18 had a near perfect performance and 9 scored at chance level. Experiment 2 was an exact replication of the Cowan et al method but this still failed to produce any negativism. Experiment 3 involved a more difficult discrimination task: although this resulted in a higher rate of errors, there was still no negativism. Possible reasons for the failure to replicate are discussed. Experiments 4 and 5 were designed to examine the effects on the performance of autistic children of varying the cognitive demands being made upon them. The Board Form of the Raven's Coloured Progressive Matrices was administered to 30 children and then, if necessary, either a range of easier 'matrices-type' problems, or the more difficult Standard Progressive Matrices. Distribution and type of errors suggested that for most of the children tested, success or failure on any item was best predicted by the intrinsic difficulty of that item rather than by the child's lack of cooperation. However, it did appear that for some of the lower functioning children, early experience of failure did interfere with subsequent performance. In Experiment 6, differences in the reactions of autistic children to different styles of adult 'approach' were explored. Ten children were exposed to four different styles of approach in which the common context was the child's involvement in the completion of a model building task. The styles varied in the extent to which they made interpersonal demands of the child and in the amount of task directed structure that was imposed. Measures based upon observation of the adult's and the children's behaviour indicated that the styles were reliably discriminable and that the children's responses, both social and task-directed, were positively and related to the interpersonal task oriented demands that were made of them. Results of these experiments are discussed within the context of interpersonal responsiveness, clinical assessment and differential diagnosis of childhood autism.