Portrait of Professor David Williams

Professor David Williams

Professor of Developmental Psychology
Head of School

About

David is Head of School and a Professor of Developmental Psychology in the School of Psychology.

Research interests

David's research focuses on various forms of developmental psychopathology, including autism spectrum disorder and specific language impairment. He is interested in understanding the nature and neuro-cognitive bases of developmental disorders, as well as what these disorders tell us about typical development. Primarily, David uses cognitive-experimental techniques, among typical and atypical populations, to investigate topics, such as:

  • The typical and atypical development of episodic memory and episodic future thinking
  • Prospective memory in autism spectrum disorder
  • Metacognition (awareness of own mental states and cognitive activity) and mindreading (awareness of others’ mental states and cognitive activity), and the relation between them
  • The development and function of inner speech use
  • Comorbidity in developmental disorders

For David's research into metacognition in autism spectrum disorder, he was given the prestigious 2010 Young Investigator award by the International Society for Autism Research.  David is Associate Editor of the journals Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders and Autism and Developmental Language Impairments

Supervision

PG students

Current research students

  • Mahsa Barzy (Leverhulme Trust): Imagining the self in fictional worlds: evidence from Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Katie Carpenter (ESRC +3)
  • Louise Malkin (Research Scholarship (PhD) in Developmental Psychology 2015): The development of referential communication in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
  • Marchella Smith (School of Psychology Studentship): TBA
  • Maria Zajaczkowska (School of Psychology Studentship): Ironic versus non-ironic relevance inferencing: a comparison of typical children and children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Past research students

  • Dr Julia Landsiedel: Prospective memory in children and adults with autism spectrum disorder (2018)
  • Dr Catherine Grainger: Metacognition in autism
  • Dr Emma Grisdale: The typical and atypical development of self awareness

Professional

  • Associate Editor of Research in Autism Spectrum Disorder: http://www.journals.elsevier.com/research-in-autism-spectrum-disorders
  • Associate Editor of Autism and Developmental Language Impairmentshttp://dli.sagepub.com/
  • Guest editor for a special issue on "the coherence of autism" for Autism: International Journal of Research Practice
  • Editor of the forthcoming Wiley-Blackwell Handbook of developmental psychopathology
  • Editorial board member of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders
  • Editorial board member of Autism: International Journal of Research and Practice

Grants and Awards

DateAward DetailsAmount
2018-22Development of childhood perfectionism: Early indicators and parental factors (Leverhulme Trust Research Grant; Co-I with Michael Forrester; PI = Joachim Stoeber)£298,259
2015-19Leverhulme Trust: 'Imagining the self in fictional worlds: evidence from Autism Spectrum Disorder' (Co-l with Heather Ferguson)£225,482
2015-18Metacognition and Mindreading: One system or two? (PI: ESRC grant)£322,536
2015-16Comedy on the spectrum: Exploring humour production in adolescents with autism (Co-I: British Academy Small Research Grant)£7,849
2014-15The Beacon Institute: Illuminating Arts and Science Research and Practice (Co-I: University of Kent 50th anniversary grant)£100,000
2011-12Time-based and Event-based Prospective Memory in Autism: The Roles of Executive Function and Theory of Mind (PI: ESRC grant ES/HO47247/1)£98,895
2009-11Exploring inner speech and cognitive inflexibility in autism (PI: City University London Independent Research Fellowship)-
2007-08Novel approaches to the study of self-awareness, with special reference to inner speech (PI: ESRC Fellowship ES/F016638/1)£119,418

Publications

Showing 50 of 115 total publications in the Kent Academic Repository. View all publications.

Article

  • Kallitsounaki, A., Williams, D., & Lind, S. (2020). Links Between Autistic Traits, Feelings of Gender Dysphoria, and Mentalising Ability: Replication and Extension of Previous Findings from the General Population. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1-8. doi:10.1007/s10803-020-04626-w
    Gender nonconformity is substantially elevated in the autistic population, but the reasons for this are currently unclear. In
    a recent study, Kallitsounaki and Williams (Kallitsounaki and Williams, Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders,
    2020; authors 1 and 2 of the current paper) found significant relations between autistic traits and both gender dysphoric
    feelings and recalled cross-gender behaviour, and between mentalising ability and gender dysphoric feelings. The current
    study successfully replicated these findings (results were supplemented with Bayesian analyses), in sample of 126 adults.
    Furthermore, it extended the previous finding of the role of mentalising in the relation between autistic traits and gender
    dysphoric feelings, by showing that mentalising fully mediated this link. Results provide a potential partial explanation for
    the increased rate of gender nonconformity in the autistic population.
  • Kallitsounaki, A., & Williams, D. (2020). Mentalising Moderates the Link between Autism Traits and Current Gender Dysphoric Features in Primarily Non-autistic, Cisgender Individuals. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:10.1007/s10803-020-04478-4
    The co-occurrence between autism and gender dysphoria has received much attention recently. We found that, among 101 adults from the general population number of autism traits, as measured using the autism-spectrum quotient was associated significantly with recalled and current gender dysphoric traits. Furthermore, performance on an objective measure of mentalising, such as the “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test was associated with current gender dysphoric traits, but most importantly it moderated the relation between number of autism traits and number of current gender dysphoric traits, such that the association was significant only when mentalising ability was relatively low. Results suggest mentalising may represent a contributing factor to the relation between autism and gender dysphoric traits in the general population.
  • Barzy, M., Filik, R., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2020). Emotional processing of ironic vs. literal criticism in autistic and non-autistic adults: Evidence from eye-tracking. Autism Research. doi:10.1002/aur.2272
    Typically developing (TD) adults are able to keep track of story characters’ emotional states online while reading. Filik et al. (2017) showed that initially, participants expected the victim to be more hurt by ironic comments than literal, but later considered them less hurtful; ironic comments were regarded as more amusing. We examined these processes in autistic adults, since previous research has demonstrated socio-emotional difficulties among autistic people, which may lead to problems processing irony and its related emotional processes despite an intact ability to integrate language in context. We recorded eye movements from autistic and non-autistic adults while they read narratives in which a character (the victim) was either criticised in an ironic or a literal manner by another character (the protagonist). A target sentence then either described the victim as feeling hurt/amused by the comment, or the protagonist as having intended to hurt/amused the victim by making the comment. Results from the non-autistic adults broadly replicated the key findings from Filik et al. (2017), supporting the two-stage account. Importantly, the autistic adults did not show comparable two-stage processing of ironic language; they did not differentiate between the emotional responses for victims or protagonists following ironic vs. literal criticism. These findings suggest that autistic people experience a specific difficulty taking into account other peoples’ communicative intentions (i.e. infer their mental state) to appropriately anticipate emotional responses to an ironic comment. We discuss how these difficulties might link to atypical socio-emotional processing in autism, and the ability to maintain successful real-life social interactions.
  • Landsiedel, J., & Williams, D. (2019). Increasing Extrinsic Motivation Improves Time-Based Prospective Memory in Adults with Autism: Relations with Executive Functioning and Mentalizing. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1-14. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-04340-2
    Time-based prospective memory (PM) is diminished under various task demands in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). However, it is still unclear what underpins their impairment or how it could be remediated. This study explored whether instructions to prioritise one element of a PM task over another improved performance in adults with ASD (compared to a group of matched neurotypical adults), and how that is related to cognitive abilities. Results indicated that importance instructions significantly improved the PM performance of participants with ASD. Moreover, the extent of the benefit was associated significantly with objectively-measured executive set-shifting ability and self-reported inhibitory control ability (the poorer the set-shifting/inhibitory control, the greater the benefit). Implications for future research and clinical practice are discussed.
  • Barzy, M., Black, J., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2019). Autistic adults anticipate and integrate meaning based on the speaker’s voice: Evidence from eye-tracking and event-related potentials. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General, 149, 1097-1115. doi:10.1037/xge0000705
    Typically developing (TD) individuals rapidly integrate information about a speaker and their intended meaning while processing sentences online. We examined whether the same processes are activated in autistic adults, and tested their timecourse in two pre-registered experiments. Experiment 1 employed the visual world paradigm. Participants listened to sentences where the speaker’s voice and message were either consistent or inconsistent (e.g. “When we go shopping, I usually look for my favourite wine”, spoken by an adult or a child), and concurrently viewed visual scenes including consistent and inconsistent objects (e.g. wine and sweets). All participants were slower to select the mentioned object in the inconsistent condition. Importantly, eye movements showed a visual bias towards the voiceconsistent object, well before hearing the disambiguating word, showing that autistic adults rapidly use the speaker’s voice to anticipate the intended meaning. However, this target bias emerged earlier in the TD group compared to the autism group (2240ms vs 1800ms before disambiguation). Experiment 2 recorded ERPs to explore speaker-meaning integration processes. Participants listened to sentences as described above, and ERPs were time-locked to the onset of the target word. A control condition included a semantic anomaly. Results revealed an enhanced N400 for inconsistent speaker-meaning sentences that was comparable to that elicited by anomalous sentences, in both groups. Overall, contrary to research that has characterised autism in terms of a local processing bias and pragmatic dysfunction, autistic people were unimpaired at integrating multiple modalities of linguistic information, and were comparably sensitive to speaker-meaning inconsistency effects.
  • Carruthers, P., & Williams, D. (2019). Comparative Metacognition. Animal Behavior and Cognition, 6, 278-288. doi:10.26451/abc.06.04.08.2019
    We argue that comparative psychologists have been too quick to jump to metacognitive interpretations of their data. We examine two such cases in some detail. One concerns so-called "uncertainty monitoring" behavior, which we show to be better explained in terms of first-order estimates of risk. The other concerns informational search, which we argue is better explained in terms of a first-order curiosity-like motivation that directs questions at the environment.
  • Lind, S., Williams, D., Nicholson, T., Grainger, C., & Carruthers, P. (2019). The self-reference effect on memory is not diminished in autism: Three studies of incidental and explicit self-referential recognition memory in autistic and neurotypical adults and adolescents. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 129, 224-236. doi:10.1037/abn0000467
    Three experiments investigated the extent to which (a) individuals with autism show a self-reference effect (i.e., better memory for self-relevant information), and (b) the size of the self-reference effect is associated with autism traits. Participants studied trait adjectives in relation to their own name (self-referent) or a celebrity’s name (other-referent) under explicit and incidental/implicit encoding conditions. Explicit encoding involved judging whether the adjectives applied to self or other (denoted by proper names). Implicit encoding involved judging whether the adjectives were presented to the right or left of one’s own or a celebrity’s name. Recognition memory for the adjectives was tested using a yes/no procedure. Experiment 1 (individual differences; N = 257 neurotypical adults) employed the Autism-spectrum Quotient as a measure of autistic traits. Experiments 2 (n = 60) and 3 (n = 52) involved case-control designs with closely matched groups of autistic and neurotypical adults and children/adolescents, respectively. Autistic traits were measured using the Autism-spectrum Quotient and Social Responsiveness Scale, respectively. In all experiments, a significant self-reference effect was observed in both explicit and implicit encoding conditions. Most importantly, however, there was (a) no significant relation between size of the self-reference effect and number of autistic traits (Experiments 1, 2, and 3), and (b) no significant difference in the size of the self-reference effect between autistic and neurotypical participants (Experiments 2 and 3). In these respects, Bayesian analyses consistently suggested that the data supported the null hypothesis. These results challenge the notion that subjective or objective self-awareness are impaired in autism.
  • Kallitsounaki, A., & Williams, D. (2019). A Relation Between Autism Traits and Gender Self-concept: Evidence from Explicit and Implicit Measures. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 1-11. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-04262-z
    A link between autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and gender identity difficulties has been suggested. In this study, we found that, among adults from the general population (N = 101) ASD traits (measured using the Autism-spectrum Quotient) were associated negatively and significantly with the strength of both explicit gender self-concept (measured using the Personal Attributes Questionnaire) and implicit gender self-concept (measured using an Implicit Association Task). Further analyses showed that a subgroup with high/clinically significant ASD traits showed significantly weaker explicit and implicit gender self-concepts than a subgroup with low ASD traits. Results were similar in both males and females, although there was some evidence of a selective influence of ASD traits on implicit gender self-concept among females only.
  • Abbot-Smith, K., Williams, D., & Matthews, D. (2019). What’s new for you?: Interlocutor-specific perspective-taking and language interpretation in autistic and neuro-typical children. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 70. doi:10.1016/j.rasd.2019.101465
    Background: Studies have found that children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) are more likely to make errors in appropriately producing referring expressions (‘the dog’ vs. ‘the black dog’) than are controls but comprehend them with equal facility. We tested whether this anomaly arises because comprehension studies have focused on manipulating perspective-taking at a ‘generic speaker’ level.

    Method: We compared 24 autistic eight- to eleven-year-olds with 24 well-matched neuro-typical controls. Children interpreted requests (e.g. ‘Can I have that ball?’) in contexts which would be ambiguous (i.e. because the child can see two balls) if perspective-taking were not utilized. In the interlocutor-specific perspective-taking condition, the target was the particular object which was new for the speaker.
    Children needed to take into account what the speaker had played with before and the fact that they were now expressing excitement about something new. In two control ‘speaker-generic’ conditions we tested children’s ability to take the visual perspective of the speaker (where any speaker who stood behind a particular barrier would have the same perspective).

    Results: The autistic group were significantly less likely to select the target and significantly more likely to request clarification in the ‘interlocutor-specific’ condition. Performance in the ‘interlocutor-generic’ (visual) perspective taking conditions did not differ between groups.

    Conclusion: Autistic children, even those who are not intellectually-impaired, tend to have more difficulty than neuro-typical peers in comprehending referring expressions when this requires understanding that people comment on what is new for them.
  • Carpenter, K., Williams, D., & Nicholson, T. (2019). Putting Your Money Where Your Mouth is: Examining Metacognition in ASD Using Post-decision Wagering. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 49, 4268-4279. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-04118-6
    It has been argued that metacognition and mindreading rely on the same cognitive processes (Carruthers in The opacity of mind: an integrative theory of self-knowledge, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2011). It is widely accepted that mindreading is diminished among individuals diagnosed with autism (Brunsdon and Happé in Autism 18(1):17–30, 2014), however, little is known about metacognition. This study examined metacognition in relation to mindreading and autism using post-decision wagering. Results from a student sample showed negative associations between autism traits and metacognitive accuracy, and metacognitive reaction times and mindreading. These findings were replicated in a general population sample, providing evidence of a reliable association between metacognition, mindreading and autism traits. However, adults diagnosed with autism showed equivalent levels of metacognitive accuracy to age- and IQ-matched comparison participants, albeit only with an overall increase in meta-level processing time.
  • Ferguson, H., Black, J., & Williams, D. (2019). Distinguishing reality from fantasy in adults with autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from eye movements and reading. Journal of Memory and Language, 106, 95-107. doi:10.1016/j.jml.2019.03.001
    Understanding fictional events requires one to distinguish reality from fantasy, and thus engages high-level processes including executive functions and imagination, both of which are impaired in autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We examined how adults with and without ASD make sense of reality-violating fantasy narratives by testing real-time understanding of counterfactuals. Participants were eye-tracked as they read narratives that depicted novel counterfactual scenarios that violate reality (e.g. “If margarine contained detergent, Mum could use margarine in her washing/baking”, Experiment 1), or counterfactual versions of known fictional worlds (e.g. “If Harry Potter had lost all his magic powers, he would use his broom to sweep/fly”, Experiment 2). Results revealed anomaly detection effects in the early moments of processing (immediately in Experiment 1, and from the post-critical region in Experiment 2), which were not modulated by group. We discuss these findings in relation to the constraints from real-world and fantasy contexts that compete to influence language comprehension, and identify a dissociation between ToM impairments and counterfactual processing abilities.
  • Black, J., Barzy, M., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2019). Intact counterfactual emotion processing in autism spectrum disorder: Evidence from eye-tracking. Autism Research, 12, 422-444. doi:10.1002/aur.2056
    Counterfactual emotions, such as regret and relief, require an awareness of how things could have been different. We report a pre-registered experiment that examines how adults with and without ASD process counterfactual emotions in real-time, based on research showing that the developmental trajectory of counterfactual thinking may be disrupted in people with ASD. Participants were eye-tracked as they read narratives in which a character made an explicit decision then subsequently experienced either a mildly negative or positive outcome. The final sentence in each story included an explicit remark about the character’s mood that was either consistent or inconsistent with the character’s expected feelings of regret or relief (e.g. “… she feels happy/annoyed about her decision.”). Results showed that adults with ASD are unimpaired in processing emotions based on counterfactual reasoning, and in fact showed earlier sensitivity to inconsistencies within relief contexts compared to TD participants. This finding highlights a previously unknown strength in empathy and emotion processing in adults with ASD, which may have been masked in previous research that has typically relied on explicit, response-based measures to record emotional inferences, which are likely to be susceptible to demand characteristics and response biases. This study therefore highlights the value of employing implicit measures that provide insights on peoples’ immediate responses to emotional content without disrupting ongoing processing.
  • Nicholson, T., Williams, D., Grainger, C., Lind, S., & Carruthers, P. (2019). Relationships between implicit and explicit uncertainty monitoring and mindreading: Evidence from autism spectrum disorder. Consciousness and Cognition, 70, 11-24. doi:10.1016/j.concog.2019.01.013
    We examined performance on implicit (non-verbal) and explicit (verbal) uncertainty-monitoring tasks among neurotypical participants and participants with autism, while also testing mindreading abilities in both groups. We found that: (i) performance of autistic participants was unimpaired on the implicit uncertainty-monitoring task, while being significantly impaired on the explicit task; (ii) performance on the explicit task was correlated with performance on mindreading tasks in both groups, whereas performance on the implicit uncertainty-monitoring task was not; and (iii) performance on implicit and explicit uncertainty-monitoring tasks was not correlated. The results support the view that (a) explicit uncertainty-monitoring draws on the same cognitive faculty as mindreading whereas (b) implicit uncertainty-monitoring only test first-order decision making. These findings support the theory that metacognition and mindreading are underpinned by the same meta-representational faculty/resources, and that the implicit uncertainty-monitoring tasks that are frequently used with non-human animals fail to demonstrate the presence of metacognitive abilities.
  • Nicholson, T., Williams, D., Carpenter, K., & Kallitsounaki, A. (2019). Interoception is Impaired in Children, But Not Adults, with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:10.1007/s10803-019-04079-w
    Interoception (the ability to sense what’s going on inside one’s body) is considered integral to many higher-order cognitive processes. Some have speculated that impaired interoception may underpin some features of ASD. Yet, in Experiment 1, we found no evidence of a between-group difference in either cardiac or respiratory interoceptive accuracy among 21 adults with ASD and 21 matched controls. Bayesian analyses suggested the data strongly supported the null hypothesis. In Experiment 2, we measured cardiac interoceptive accuracy in 21 children with ASD and 21 matched controls. Here interoceptve accuracy was significantly diminished in the ASD group and was associated with a moderate-to-large effect size. Results suggest early interoception difficulties are resolved or compensated for by adulthood in people with ASD.
  • Williams, D., Nicholson, T., Grainger, C., Lind, S., & Carruthers, P. (2018). Can you spot a liar? Deception, mindreading, and the case of autism spectrum disorder. Autism Research, 11, 1129-1137. doi:10.1002/aur.1962
    Detection of deception is of fundamental importance for everyday social life and might require “mindreading” (the ability to represent others’ mental states). People with diminished mindreading, such as those with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), might be at risk of manipulation because of lie detection difficulties. In Experiment 1, performance among 216 neurotypical adults on a realistic lie detection paradigm was significantly negatively associated with number of ASD traits, but not with mindreading ability. Bayesian analyses complemented null hypothesis significance testing and suggested the data supported the alternative hypothesis in this key respect. Cross validation of results was achieved by randomly splitting the full sample into two subsamples of 108 and rerunning analyses. The association between lie detection and ASD traits held in both subsamples, showing the reliability of findings. In Experiment 2, lie detection was significantly impaired in 27 adults with a diagnosis of ASD relative to 27 matched comparison participants. Results suggest that people with ASD (or ASD traits) may be particularly vulnerable to manipulation and may benefit from lie detection training.
  • Malkin, L., Abbot-Smith, K., Williams, D., & Ayling, J. (2018). When do children with Autism Spectrum Disorder take common ground into account during communication?. Autism Research, 11, 1366-1375. doi:10.1002/aur.2007
    One feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a deficit in verbal reference production; i.e., providing an appropriate amount of verbal information for the listener to refer to things, people, and events. However, very few studies have manipulated whether individuals with ASD can take a speaker’s perspective in order to interpret verbal reference. A critical limitation of all interpretation studies is that comprehension of another’s verbal reference required the participant to represent only the other’s visual perspective. Yet, many everyday interpretations of verbal reference require knowledge of social perspective (i.e., a consideration of which experiences one has shared with which interlocutor).
    We investigated whether 22 5;0- to 7;11-year-old children with ASD and 22 well-matched typically developing (TD) children used social perspective to comprehend (Study 1) and produce (Study 2) verbal reference. Social perspective-taking was manipulated by having children collaboratively complete activities with one of two interlocutors such that for a given activity, one interlocutor was Knowledgeable and one was Naïve. Study 1 found no between-group differences for the interpretation of ambiguous references based on social perspective. In Study 2, when producing referring terms, the ASD group made modifications based on listener needs, but this effect was significantly stronger in the TD group. Overall, the findings suggest that high-functioning children with ASD know with which interlocutor they have previously shared a given experience and can take this information into account to steer verbal reference. Nonetheless, they show clear performance limitations in this regard relative to well-matched controls.
  • Nicholson, T., Williams, D., Grainger, C., Christensen, J., Calvo-Merino, B., & Gaigg, S. (2018). Interoceptive impairments do not lie at the heart of autism or alexithymia. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 127, 612-622. doi:10.1037/abn0000370
    Quattrocki and Friston (2014) argued that abnormalities in interoception—the process of representing one’s internal physiological states—could lie at the heart of autism, because of the critical role interoception plays in the ontogeny of social-affective processes. This proposal drew criticism from proponents of the alexithymia hypothesis, who argue that social-affective and underlying interoceptive impairments are not a feature of autism per se, but of alexithymia (a condition characterized by difficulties describing and identifying one’s own emotions), which commonly co-occurs with autism. Despite the importance of this debate for our understanding of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), and of the role of interoceptive impairments in psychopathology, more generally, direct empirical evidence is scarce and inconsistent. Experiment 1 examined in a sample of 137 neurotypical (NT) individuals the association among autistic traits, alexithymia, and interoceptive accuracy (IA) on a standard heartbeat-tracking measure of IA. In Experiment 2, IA was assessed in 46 adults with ASD (27 of whom had clinically significant alexithymia) and 48 NT adults. Experiment 1 confirmed strong associations between autistic traits and alexithymia, but yielded no evidence to suggest that either was associated with interoceptive difficulties. Similarly, Experiment 2 provided no evidence for interoceptive impairments in autistic adults, irrespective of any co-occurring alexithymia. Bayesian analyses consistently supported the null hypothesis. The observations pose a significant challenge to notions that interoceptive impairments constitute a core feature of either ASD or alexithymia, at least as far as the direct perception of interoceptive signals is concerned.
  • Malkin, L., Abbot-Smith, K., & Williams, D. (2018). Is verbal reference impaired in autism spectrum disorder? A systematic review. Autism and Developmental Language Impairments, 3, 1-24. doi:10.1177/2396941518763166
    Background and aims: Pragmatic language is a key difficulty in autism spectrum disorder. One such pragmatic skill is verbal reference, which allows the current entity of shared interest between speakers to be identified and thus enables fluid conversation. The aim of this review was to determine the extent to which studies have found that verbal reference is impaired in autism spectrum disorder. We organise the review in terms of the methodology used and the modality
    (production versus comprehension) in which proficiency with verbal reference was assessed. Evidence for the potential cognitive underpinnings of these skills is also reviewed.

    Main contribution and methods: To our knowledge, this is the first systematic review of verbal reference in autism spectrum disorder. PsychINFO and Web of Science were systematically screened using the combination of search terms outlined in this paper. Twenty-four studies met our inclusion criteria. Twenty-two of these examined production, whereby the methodology ranged from elicited conversation through to elicited narrative, the ‘director’ task and other referential communication paradigms. Three studies examined reference interpretation. (One study investigated both production and appropriacy judgement). Four studies examined the relationship between appropriate usage of verbal reference and formal language (lexico-syntactic ability). Two studies investigated whether reference production related to Theory of Mind or Executive Functioning.

    Conclusion and implications: Across a range of elicited production tasks, the predominant finding was that children and adults with autism spectrum disorder demonstrate a deficit in the production of appropriate verbal reference in comparison not only to typically developing groups, but also to groups with Developmental Language Disorder or Down syndrome. In contrast, the studies of reference interpretation which compared performance to typical control groups all
    found no between-group differences in this regard. To understand this cross-modality discrepancy, we need studies withthe same sample of individuals, whereby the task requirements for comprehension and production are as closely matched as possible. The field also requires the development of experimental manipulations which allow us to pinpoint precisely if and how each comprehension and/or production task requires mentalising and/or various components of executive functioning. Only through such detailed and controlled experimental work would it be possible to determine the precise location of impairments in verbal reference in autism spectrum disorder. A better understanding of this would contribute to the development of interventions.
  • Williams, D., Nicholson, T., & Grainger, C. (2018). The self-reference effect on perception: Undiminished in adults with autism and no relation to autism traits. Autism Research, 11, 331-341. doi:10.1002/aur.1891
    Memory for (and perception of) information about the self is superior to memory for (and perception of) other kinds of information. This self-reference effect (SRE) in memory appears diminished in ASD and related to the number of ASD traits manifested by neurotypical individuals (fewer traits = larger SRE). Here, we report the first experiments exploring the relation between ASD and the SRE in perception. Using a “Shapes” Task (Sui et al., 2012), participants learned to associate three different shapes (triangle, circle, square) with three different labels representing self, a familiar other, or an unfamiliar other (e.g., “you”, “mother”, “stranger”). Participants then completed trials during which they were presented with one shape and one label for 100ms, and made judgements about whether the shape and label were a match. In Experiment 1, neurotypical participants (n=124) showed the expected SRE, detecting self-related matches more reliably and quickly than matches involving familiar or unfamiliar other. Most important, number of ASD traits was unrelated to the size of the SRE for either accuracy or RT. Bayesian association analyses strongly supported the null hypothesis. In Experiment 2, there were no differences between 22 adults with ASD and 21 matched comparison adults in performance on the Shapes Task. Despite showing large and significant theory of mind impairments, participants with ASD showed the typical SRE and there were no associations with ASD traits in either group. In every case, Bayesian analyses favoured the null hypothesis. These findings challenge theories about self-representation in ASD, as discussed in the paper.
  • Black, J., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2018). Imagining counterfactual worlds in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 44, 1444-1463. doi:10.1037/xlm0000500
    Two experiments are presented which explore online counterfactual processing in autism
    spectrum disorder (ASD) using eye-tracking. Participants’ eye movements were tracked
    while they read factual and counterfactual sentences in an anomaly detection task. In
    Experiment 1, the sentences depicted everyday counterfactual situations (e.g. If Joanne had
    remembered her umbrella, her hair would have been dry/wet when she arrived home).
    Sentences in Experiment 2 depicted counterfactual versions of real world events (e.g. If the
    Titanic had not hit an iceberg, it would have survived/sunk along with all the passengers).
    Results from both experiments suggest that counterfactual understanding is undiminished in
    adults with ASD. In fact, participants with ASD were faster than TD participants to detect
    anomalies within realistic, discourse-based counterfactuals (Experiment 1). Detection was
    comparable for TD and ASD groups when understanding could be grounded in knowledge
    about reality (Experiment 2), though the two groups employed subtly different strategies for
    responding to and recovering from counterfactual inconsistent words. These data argue
    against general difficulties in global coherence and complex integration in ASD.
  • Wallace, G., Peng, C., & Williams, D. (2017). Interfering with Inner Speech Selectively Disrupts Problem-Solving and is Linked with Real-World Executive Functioning. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 60, 3456-3460. doi:10.1044/2017_JSLHR-S-16-0376
    Purpose: According to Vygotskian theory, verbal thinking serves to guide our behavior and underpins critical self-regulatory functions. Indeed, numerous studies now link inner speech usage with performance on tests of executive function. However, the selectivity of inner speech contributions to multi-factorial executive planning performance and links with real-world functioning are limited. Therefore, the present study seeks to fill this gap in our knowledge. Method: Fifty-one adults completed the Tower of London under two conditions: (1) articulatory suppression and (2) foot tapping as well as self-ratings of real-world executive functioning (utilizing the Behavior Rating Inventory of Executive Function-Adult version). Results: Interfering with inner speech selectively disrupted Tower of London performance over and above a simultaneous motor task (i.e., foot tapping). Furthermore, this selectivity in performance was linked with real-world self-monitoring. Conclusion: These results provide further evidence for specific links between verbal thinking and executive function (particularly using multifactorial tasks of planning) and suggest that inner speech might serve as a key intervention target in clinical disorders where executive function deficits are prominent.
  • Landsiedel, J., Williams, D., & Abbot-Smith, K. (2017). A meta-analysis and critical review of prospective memory in autism spectrum disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi:10.1007/s10803-016-2987-y
    Prospective memory (PM) is the ability to remember to carry out a planned intention at an appropriate moment in the future. Research on PM in ASD has produced mixed results. We aimed to establish the extent to which two types of PM (event-based/time-based) are impaired in ASD. In part 1, a meta-analysis of all existing studies indicates a large impairment of time-based, but only a small impairment of event-based, PM in ASD. In Part 2, a critical review concludes that time-based PM appears diminished in ASD, in line with the meta-analysis, but that caution should be taken when interpreting event-based PM findings, given potential methodological limitations of several studies. Clinical implications and directions for future research are discussed.
  • Williams, D., Bergström, Z., & Grainger, C. (2016). Metacognitive monitoring and the hypercorrection effect in autism and the general population: Relation to autism(-like) traits and mindreading. Autism: International Journal of Research and Practice, in Press. doi:10.1177/1362361316680178
    Among neurotypical adults, errors made with high confidence (i.e., errors a person strongly believed they would not make) are corrected more reliably than errors made with low confidence. This “hypercorrection effect” is thought to result from enhanced attention to information that reflects a “metacognitive mismatch” between one’s beliefs and reality. In Experiment 1, we employed a standard measure of this effect. Participants answered general knowledge questions and provided confidence judgements about how likely each answer was to be correct, after which feedback was given. Finally, participants were retested on all questions answered incorrectly during the initial phase. Mindreading ability and ASD-like traits were measured. We found that a representative sample of (n = 83) neurotypical participants made accurate confidence judgements (reflecting good metacognition) and showed the hypercorrection effect. Mindreading ability was associated with ASD-like traits and metacognition. However, the hypercorrection effect was non-significantly associated with mindreading or ASD-like traits. In Experiment 2, 11 children with ASD and 11 matched comparison participants completed the hypercorrection task. Although ASD children showed significantly diminished metacognitive ability, they showed an undiminished hypercorrection effect. The evidence in favour of an undiminished hypercorrection effect (null result) was moderate, according to Bayesian analysis (Bayes factor = 0.21).
  • Williams, D., Peng, C., & Wallace, G. (2016). Verbal thinking and inner speech use in autism spectrum disorder. Neuropsychology Review, 26, 394-419. doi:10.1007/s11065-016-9328-y
    The extent to which cognition is verbally mediated in neurotypical individuals is the subject of debate in cognitive neuropsychology, as well as philosophy and psychology. Studying “verbal thinking” in developmental/neuropsychological disorders provides a valuable opportunity to inform theory building, as well as clinical practice. In this paper, we provide a comprehensive, critical review of such studies among individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD involves severe social-communication deficits and limitations in cognitive/behavioural flexibility. The prevailing view in the field is that neither cognition nor behaviour is mediated verbally in ASD, and that this contributes to diagnostic features. However, our review suggests that, on the contrary, most studies to date actually find that among people with ASD cognitive task performance is either a) mediated verbally in a typical fashion, or b) not mediated verbally, but at no obvious cost to overall task performance. Overall though, these studies have methodological limitations and thus clear-cut conclusions are not possible at this stage. The aim of the review is to take stock of existing empirical findings, as well as to help develop the directions for future research that will resolve the many outstanding issues in this field.
  • Grainger, C., Williams, D., & Lind, S. (2016). Judgment of Learning Accuracy in High-functioning Adolescents and Adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 46, 3570-3582. doi:10.1007/s10803-016-2895-1
    This study explored whether adults and adolescents with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) demonstrate difficulties making metacognitive judgments, specifically judgments of learning. Across two experiments, the study examined whether individuals with ASD could accurately judge whether they had learnt a piece of information (in this case word pairs). In Experiment 1, adults with ASD demonstrated typical accuracy on a standard ‘cue-alone’ judgment of learning (JOL) task, compared to age- and IQmatched neurotypical adults. Additionally, in Experiment 2, adolescents with ASD demonstrated typical accuracy on both a standard ‘cue-alone’ JOL task, and a ‘cue-target’ JOL task. These results suggest that JOL accuracy is unimpaired in ASD. These results have important implications for both theories of metacognition in ASD and educational practise.
  • Grainger, C., Williams, D., & Lind, S. (2016). Recognition memory and source memory in autism spectrum disorder: A study of the intention superiority and enactments effects. Autism, 1-9. doi:10.1177/1362361316653364
    It is well established that neurotypical individuals generally show better memory for actions they have performed than actions they have observed others perform or merely read about, a so-called “enactment effect”. Strikingly, research has also shown that neurotypical individuals demonstrate superior memory for actions they intend to perform in the future (but have not yet performed), an effect commonly known as the “intention superiority effect”.

    Although the enactment effect has been studied among people with ASD, the current study is the first to investigate the intention superiority effect in this disorder. This is surprising given the potential importance this issue has for general theory development, as well as for clinical practice. As such, this study aimed to assess the intention superiority and enactment effects in twenty-two children with ASD, and 20 IQ/age-matched neurotypical children.

    The results showed that children with ASD demonstrated not only undiminished enactment effects in recognition and source memory, but also (surprisingly for some theories) typical intention superiority effects. The implications of these results for theory, as well as clinical practice, are discussed.

Book section

  • Shaughnessy, N. (2017). Opening Minds: the Arts and Developmental Psychopathology. In D. M. Williams & L. C. Centifanti (Eds.), Wiley Handbook of Developmental Psychopathology (pp. 61-86). John Wiley & Sons. Retrieved from http://eu.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-1118554558.html
  • Williams, D. (2017). Comorbidity. In D. M. Williams & L. Centifanti (Eds.), Wiley handbook of developmental psychopathology (pp. 273-285). Oxford, UK: John Wiley & Sons. doi:10.1002/9781118554470.ch13

Conference or workshop item

  • Zajaczkowska, M., Abbot-Smith, K., & Williams, D. (2018). Cognitive underpinnings of irony understanding in children. In Social Communication Across the Lifespan. Canterbury, Kent. Retrieved from https://www.kent.ac.uk/psychology/downloads/CogSoCoAGEConference.pdf
    We examined the relationship between irony interpretation and Theory of Mind
    measures (Strange Stories, Happé, 1994) and the Theory of Mind Inventory (ToMI,
    Hutchins et al., 2012), as well as working memory, set shifting and inhibitory
    control, whilst controlling for non-verbal IQ. We also examined different types of
    irony interpretation. All previous studies have used simple forms of irony, where
    the hearer can see from the real world context that the literal meaning cannot be
    true (see (1)). We included a complex irony condition, where the non-literal
    interpretation cannot be inferred from the visual context (see (2)).
    (1) Tom and Sally wanted to go for a picnic. It has just started to rain. Sally: It's a
    perfect day for a picnic.
    (2) Tom: I have been invited to a party by the most beautiful girl in my class.
    Sally: Yeah, and I have been invited to the Queen's party.
    We presented children (N=51; aged 6;01 - 9;01) with 5 videos, in both simple and
    complex irony conditions. After each short dialogue as in (1) and (2), participants
    answered an open-ended question, then a forced-choice (out of three) question
    about the speakers meaning. Children selected above chance for simple irony (M
    = 76% correct) but significantly below chance for complex (M = 25% correct) irony.
    Regression analyses showed that when controlling for age, nonverbal IQ and
    formal language, ToM measures related to simple irony interpretation. There was
    no relationship found between the EF and ToM measures and complex irony
    interpretation.
  • Abbot-Smith, K., Williams, D., & Matthews, D. (2018). Listening in your shoes: social perspective-taking and verbal reference interpretation by children with autism. In Social Communication Across the Lifespan. Canterbury, Kent. Retrieved from https://www.kent.ac.uk/psychology/downloads/CogSoCoAGEConference.pdf
    Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) often do not tailor language for
    specific listeners, i.e. they fail to use social perspective. Only one previous study
    examined whether individuals with ASD use social perspective to interpret
    referring terms (e.g. 'the stripy ball'). Malkin et al. (2017) found that 5- to 7-yearolds
    with ASD did not differ from well-matched typically-developing (TD) children
    in correctly interpreting a referring term in relation to the activity they had shared
    with the specific speaker. In the current study, we manipulated a different aspect
    of social common ground. We told each child (C) that one experimenter (E2) had
    bought toys which the Requesting Experimenter (RE) had not yet seen. For each
    trial, E2 passed one of these (e.g. pink ball) over to RE, who discussed this with C.
    Then RE left and E2 showed C another object of the same type (e.g. yellow ball).
    When RE returned, she and C could see both objects. RE said 'Oh wow, I like that
    ball. Can you put that ball in my box?'. We tested 24 eight- to eleven-year-olds
    with ASD. They were significantly less likely than 24 well-matched TD controls to
    select the object that was new for RE (p <.05) and significantly more likely to ask
    clarification questions such as, 'which ball?' (p < .01). The groups did not differ for
    either of these DVs in visual perspective-taking controls. Individuals with ASD have
    difficulty understanding that people tend to comment on things which are new for
    them.
  • Zajączkowska, M., Abbot-Smith, K., & Williams, D. (2018). Cognitive underpinnings of irony understanding in children. In 10th Dubrovnik conference on cognitive science: communication, pragmatics and Theory of Mind.. Dubrovnik, Croatia.
  • Abbot-Smith, K., Williams, D., & Matthews, D. (2018). Listening in Your Shoes: Can Children with Autism Take the Perspective of Others When Interpreting Language?. In International Society for Autism Research Annual Conference. Rotterdam, Netherlands: INSAR. Retrieved from https://insar.confex.com/insar/2018/webprogram/Paper27246.html
    Background: Individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) frequently fail to interpret the intent of a speaker’s utterance, apparently because they have difficulty determining the crucial aspects of common ground, which they share with the speaker. Only two studies (both with adults with ASD) have previously investigated this experimentally (Begeer et al., 2010; Sanstieban et al., 2015). Both manipulated level one visual common ground (whether the speaker can see a particular object). Both found that the participants with ASD were unimpaired relative to typical controls. However, visual perspective-taking may not align in development with social perspective-taking, which is understanding the interlocutor-specific experiences shared with the conversation partner.
    Objectives: To determine whether social versus visual perspective-taking have differential effects on the ability of children with ASD to interpret requests.

    Methods: We compared 24 eight- to eleven-year-olds with ASD with 23 typically-developing eight- to eleven-year-olds. Groups were matched on non-verbal IQ, receptive language, chronological age and gender. Children interpreted requests (e.g. ‘Can I have that ball?’) in contexts which would be ambiguous (i.e. because the child can see two balls) if perspective-taking was not utilized. There were three within-subjects conditions: Social perspective-taking, Level 1 Visual Perspective-taking (VPL1) and Level 2 Visual Perspective-taking. There were three trials per condition. For each the requester wore dark sunglasses and did not point. In the VPL1 condition one of the two objects was hidden from the viewpoint of the requester (E1). The correct choice was the object that the requester could see. In the Social Condition, the child was told that E2 had bought toys that E1 had not yet seen. E2 passed one of these (e.g. a pink ball) over to E1, who played with / discussed this with the child. Then E1 left the room and E2 showed the child another object of the same type (e.g. a yellow ball) and played with /discussed this with the child. When E1 returned to the room, both the child and E1 could see two balls as E1 excitedly verbalized the request. The correct choice was the object that was new for E1 (here: yellow ball).

    Results: Overall the group with ASD performed significantly worse than the typically-developing control (p = .032, ?p2 = .073). Their performance was not found to relate to affect recognition. There was also a main effect for condition (p = .033, ?p2 = .097). Children with ASD found the Social Condition significantly harder than the VPL1 Condition (p <.01). Nonetheless, Social and VPL1 conditions were strongly inter-correlated for children with ASD (r = .73, p < .001), even when non-verbal IQ, receptive language and age were partialled out (r = .73, p < .001).

    Conclusions: Children with ASD find it more difficult to use social than to use VPL1 to interpret language. VPL1 may be a more basic form of social perspective-taking (Harris, 1992) since the two are related. A large proportion of intellectually high-functioning children with ASD may have difficulty interpreting language if instructions or discourse require social perspective-taking
  • Malkin, L., Abbot-Smith, K., Williams, D., & Ayling, J. (2017). Children with autism spectrum disorder use common ground to comprehend ambiguous requests. In 14th International Congress for the Study of Child Language. Lyon, France.
  • Malkin, L., Abbot-Smith, K., Williams, D., & Ayling, J. (2017). When do children with Autism Spectrum Disorder take common ground into account during communication?. In 14th International Congress for the Study of Child Language. Lyon, France. Retrieved from http://iascl2017.org/
  • Abbot-Smith, K., Williams, D., & Matthews, M. (2017). How social vs. visual perspective-taking determine the interpretation of linguistic reference by children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. In 14th International Congress for the Study of Child Language. Lyon, France. Retrieved from http://iascl2017.org/
  • Black, J., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2017). Imagining Impossible Counterfactual Worlds in Autism: An Eye Tracking Study. In Experimental Psychology Society meeting. Belfast, UK.
  • Williams, D., Nicholson, T., Carruthers, P., & Bergström, Z. (2016). Metacognition, Mindreading, and the Hypercorrection Effect in ASD. In International Meeting for Autism Research. doi:10.1177/1362361316680178
    Among neurotypical adults, errors made with high confidence (i.e. errors a person strongly believed they would not make) are corrected more reliably than errors made with low confidence. This ‘hypercorrection effect’ is thought to result from enhanced attention to information that reflects a ‘metacognitive mismatch’ between one’s beliefs and reality. In Experiment 1, we employed a standard measure of this effect. Participants answered general knowledge questions and provided confidence judgements about how likely each answer was to be correct, after which feedback was given. Finally, participants were retested on all questions answered incorrectly during the initial phase. Mindreading ability and autism spectrum disorder–like traits were measured. We found that a representative sample of (n?=?83) neurotypical participants made accurate confidence judgements (reflecting good metacognition) and showed the hypercorrection effect. Mindreading ability was associated with autism spectrum disorder–like traits and metacognition. However, the hypercorrection effect was non-significantly associated with mindreading or autism spectrum disorder–like traits. In Experiment 2, 11 children with autism spectrum disorder and 11 matched comparison participants completed the hypercorrection task. Although autism spectrum disorder children showed significantly diminished metacognitive ability, they showed an undiminished hypercorrection effect. The evidence in favour of an undiminished hypercorrection effect (null result) was moderate, according to Bayesian analysis (Bayes factor?=?0.21).
  • Nicholson, T., Williams, D., Carruthers, P., & Lind, S. (2016). Distinguishing Between Implicit and Explicit Measures of Metacognition in ASD. In International Meeting for Autism Research. San Francisco, California.
  • Landsiedel, J., & Williams, D. (2016). Event-based prospective memory in autism: Effects of working memory suppression. In British Psychological Society (Developmental Section) Annual Conference. Belfast, UK.
  • Black, J., Ferguson, H., & Williams, D. (2016). Imagining Counterfactual Worlds in Autism Spectrum Disorder. In Improving Literacy: Understanding Reading Development and Reading Difficulties across the Lifespan. Tianjin, China. Retrieved from http://www2.le.ac.uk/departments/npb/people/kbp3/uk-china-researcher-links-workshop-september-2016
  • Black, J., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2016). Imagining Counterfactual Worlds in Autism Spectrum Disorder. In Psychonomic Society 57th Annual Meeting. Boston, USA.
  • Landsiedel, J., & Williams, D. (2016). Event-based prospective memory in autism: Effects of prospective memory cue focality. In 6th International Conference on Memory. Budapest, Hungary.
  • Abbot-Smith, K., Williams, D., Matthews, D., Pettifor, L., & Vince, N. (2016). How social vs. visual perspective-taking determine the interpretation of linguistic reference by 8-11-year-olds with ASD and age-matched peers. In Neurodevelopmental Seminar UCL. London, UK. Retrieved from http://www.neurodevelopmentaldisorders-seminarseries.co.uk/

Edited book

  • Williams, D. (2017). The Wiley Handbook of Developmental Psychopathology. (L. Centifanti & D. M. Williams, Eds.). UK: Wiley. Retrieved from https://www.wiley.com/en-gb/The+Wiley+Handbook+of+Developmental+Psychopathology-p-9781118554555
  • Williams, D. (2017). Wiley Handbook of Developmental Psychopathology (in press). (D. M. Williams & L. Centifanti, Eds.). John Wiley & Sons.

Thesis

  • Barzy, M. (2020). The Effects of Social Context and Perspective on Language Processing: Evidence from Autism Spectrum Disorder.
    This thesis aimed to provide new insights into the role of perspective and non-linguistic context in language processing among autistic and typically developing (TD) adults. The mental simulation account and the one-step model state that language is mentally simulated and interpreted in context, suggesting that these processes are activated online while linguistic input is processed. Little is known of whether the same processes are activated in autism. In seven experiments (four were fully pre-registered), I used offline and online measures (e.g. EEG, eye-tracking) to investigate how social factors, such as the perspective, speaker's voice, emotional states of the characters, and topic of conversation influence language comprehension in both lab and real-life settings, in autism and TD adults. Based on the weak central coherence (WCC), and the complex information processing disorder (CIPD) theories, it was expected that autistic adults would struggle to integrate the social context with language, or at least show some subtle delays in the time-course of these anticipation/integration processes. First, I failed to find the same effect as previous findings, showing enhanced processing for personalized language, suggesting that this process is dependent on individual preferences in perspective-taking and task demands. Furthermore, I found that contrary to the WCC, autistic individuals had an intact ability to integrate social context online, while extracting the meaning from language. There were subtle differences in the time-course and strength of these processes between autistic and TD adults under high cognitive load. Findings are in line with CIPD hypothesis, showing that online language processes are disrupted as task demands increase, which consequently affect the quality of their social interactions. Future research should further investigate how these subtle differences impact social communication abilities in everyday life in autism.
  • Landsiedel, J. (2017). Prospective memory in children and adults with autism spectrum disorder.
    Prospective memory (PM) or memory for delayed intentions refers to the ability to remember to carry out a planned intention at an appropriate moment in the future. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder characterised by a cognitive profile of strengths and weaknesses, which suggest that PM may be a challenge for individuals with this condition. A small group of studies investigating PM in ASD have produced heterogeneous evidence. Thus, the aim of this thesis was to advance our understanding of PM abilities in ASD. Based on a meta-analysis as well as a thorough review of the existing literature, the experiments in this thesis targeted two main questions. (1) What underpins time-based PM problems in ASD and how could they be addressed? (2) Is event-based PM in ASD impaired or spared? The findings in this thesis indicate that ASD is characterised by time-based PM impairments, which were related to executive functioning, on the one hand, whereas on the other hand event-based PM abilities remain spared. The theoretical and practical implications of these results, as well as directions for future research are discussed.

Forthcoming

  • Barzy, M., Ferguson, H., & Williams, D. (2020). Perspective influences eye movements during real-life conversation: Mentalising about self vs. others in autism. Autism.
    Socio-communication is profoundly impaired among autistic individuals. Difficulties representing others’ mental states have been linked to modulations of gaze and speech, which have also been shown to be impaired in autism. Despite these observed impairments in ‘real-world’ communicative settings, research has mostly focused on lab-based experiments, where the language is highly structured. In a pre-registered experiment, we recorded eye movements and verbal responses while adults (N=50) engaged in a real-life conversation. Using a novel approach, we also manipulated the perspective that participants adopted by asking them questions that were related to the self, a familiar other, or an unfamiliar other. Results replicated previous work, showing reduced attention to socially-relevant information among autistic participants (i.e. less time looking at the experimenter’s face, and more time looking around the background), compared to typically-developing controls. Importantly, perspective modulated social attention in both groups; talking about an unfamiliar other reduced attention to potentially distracting or resource-demanding social information, and increased looks to non-social background. Social attention did not differ between self and familiar other contexts, reflecting greater shared knowledge for familiar/similar others. Autistic participants spent more time looking at the background when talking about an unfamiliar other vs. themselves. Future research should investigate the developmental trajectory of this effect and the cognitive mechanisms underlying it.
  • Black, J., Williams, D., & Ferguson, H. (2017). Imagining Counterfactual Worlds in Autism Spectrum Disorder. In International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR). San Francisco, USA.
  • Lind, S., Williams, D., Grainger, C., & Landsiedel, J. (2016). Facets of self and their relation to facets of memory in autism. In G. Goodman, J. Johnson, & P. Mundy (Eds.), The Wiley Handbook of Autobiographical Memory, Autism Spectrum Disorder, and the Law. John Wiley & Sons.
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