School of Psychology News & events

Research Summary

Jones, C (2013 - 2014) Social communication in autism spectrum disorder: The role of synchrony explored using computer pattern matching. Welsh Crucible. £7,351.

Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by impairments in social communication (DSM-V, 2013). Individuals with ASD often have overly formal or stereotyped language and find maintaining conversations, particularly social ‘chit-chat’, difficult. Alongside these verbal difficulties are impairments in using non-verbal communication, such as eye gaze, gesture, facial expression and posture.

Although researchers have attempted to quantify the limited verbal and non-verbal social communication in ASD, an area that has received little attention is how these two forms of communication are integrated (self-synchrony). For someone without ASD, non-verbal signals are effortlessly co-ordinated with the content and timing of speech. This co-ordination enhances communication, making intentions, thoughts and beliefs easier to understand (Goldin-Meadow & Alibali, 2013).

Synchrony is not just important for making our own intentions clear. During conversations we subconsciously synchronise our verbal and non-verbal communication with the person we are talking to (other-synchrony). This process of social co-ordination is important in creating close relationships. The synchrony between mother and infant is predictive of the development of a wide range of behavioural and cognitive abilities in the child (Feldman, 2007). These include empathy and the capacity for understanding another person’s point of view (theory of mind), both of which are impaired in ASD.

Evidence that individuals with ASD have difficulties with motor co-ordination suggests that synchrony, both within-self and with other people, may be impaired (Fitzpatrick et al., 2013). However, despite both types of synchrony being important for social communication and for cognitive and social development, this area of research has been overlooked. Quantifying self- and other-synchrony is important for understanding howsocial communication difficulties manifest in ASD. Characterising the nature of these difficulties is also a first step in developing an intervention that can teach parents how to improve their synchrony with their child.