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Affective exchanges between young autistic children and their mothers

Abstract

This study examined autistic children's social behavior, affect, and use of gaze during naturalistic interactions with their mothers. Sixteen autistic children, 30 to 70 months of age, and 16 normal children, matched on receptive language, participated. Children and their mothers were videotaped during three situations: a free-play period, a more structured period during which communicative demand was made on the child, and a face-to-face interaction. In all three situations, autistic and normal children did not differ in the frequency or duration of gaze at mother's face. In the one condition (face-to-face interaction) during which affective expressions were coded, autistic and normal children also were not found to differ significantly in the frequency or duration of smiles displayed, and neither group displayed frowns. However, autistic children were much less likely than normal children to combine their smiles with eye contact in a single act that conveyed communicative intent. Autistic and normal children were not found to differ in the percentages of smiles they displayed to social versus nonsocial events. However, when autistic children's responses to mother's smiles specifically were examined, it was found that they were much less likely to smile in response to mother's smiles than were normal children. Finally, it was found that mothers o f autistic children displayed fewer smiles and were less likely to smile in response to their children's smiles, when compared with mothers o f normal children. These findings suggest that the autistic child's unusual affective behavior may negatively affect the behavior of others.

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Author information

Correspondence to Geraldine Dawson.

Additional information

We wish to thank the children and their mothers who participated in this study, and the staff at Division TEACCH at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill for their help in recruiting children for the study. Harriet Reingold generously allowed us to videotape the children in her infant observation laboratory at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Cathy Lord provided videotapes of some of the autistic children and their mothers. Mary Evers assisted in data collection. Kerry Hogan assisted in the coding of data; her help is gratefully acknowledged. The study was supported by a grant from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Dawson, G., Hill, D., Spencer, A. et al. Affective exchanges between young autistic children and their mothers. J Abnorm Child Psychol 18, 335–345 (1990). https://doi.org/10.1007/BF00916569

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Keywords

  • Social Behavior
  • Structure Period
  • Normal Child
  • Autistic Child
  • Naturalistic Interaction