Atypicalities of Gesture Form and Function in Autistic Adults

  • A. de MarchenaEmail author
  • E. S. Kim
  • A. Bagdasarov
  • J. Parish-Morris
  • B. B. Maddox
  • E. S. Brodkin
  • R. T. Schultz
Original Paper


While well-represented on clinical measures, co-speech gesture production has never been formally studied in autistic adults. Twenty-one verbally fluent autistic adults and 21 typically developing controls engaged in a controlled conversational task. Group differences were observed in both semantic/pragmatic and motoric features of spontaneously produced co-speech gestures. Autistic adults prioritized different functions of co-speech gesture. Specifically, they used gesture more than controls to facilitate conversational turn-taking, demonstrating a novel nonverbal strategy for regulating conversational dynamics. Autistic adults were more likely to gesture unilaterally than bilaterally, a motoric feature of gesture that was individually associated with autism symptoms. Co-speech gestures may provide a link between nonverbal communication symptoms and known differences in motor performance in autism.


Autism spectrum disorder Gesture Nonverbal communication Motor skills Conversation Adulthood 



At the time of the study, all authors were affiliated with the Center for Autism Research at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Ashley de Marchena was also affiliated with the University of the Sciences, Department of Behavioral and Social Sciences. Armen Bagdasarov was also associated with the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Psychology. Julia Parish-Morris was also associated with the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Psychiatry. Brenna B. Maddox was also associated with the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Psychiatry, Center for Mental Health Policy and Services Research. Edward S. Brodkin was also associated with the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Psychiatry, Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, Translational Research Laboratory. Robert T. Schultz was also associated with the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Psychiatry and the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Department of Pediatrics. We thank the participants who made this research possible, and who impressed us all with their creativity in describing the task stimuli. This project would not have been possible without the support of a large team at the Center for Autism Research at CHOP, including especially: Leslie Adeoye, Leila Bateman, Madeline Conca, Zachary Dravis, Fiona Fergusson, Emily Ferguson, Ashley Pallathra, Juhi Pandey, Alison Pomykacz, Leah Wang, Yuchen Zhang, and Alisa Zoltowski. Special thanks to the scientists who generously shared both their wisdom and their resources to make this work stronger: Karen Adolph and Janet Bavelas. We acknowledge funding from the following sources: U54 HD86984 (National Institute of Child Health and Human Development), R34MH104407 (National Institute of Mental Health), T32NS007413 (National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke), the Eagles Charitable Foundation, and the McMorris Family Foundation. Portions of this work were presented at the Meeting of the International Society for Autism Research in 2017 and 2018.

Author Contributions

AdM conceived and designed the study, trained confederates and coders, analyzed the data, and wrote the manuscript; ESK programmed the task; AB coordinated gesture coding and wrote part of the manuscript; JPM wrote part of the manuscript; BBM and ESB diagnosed and characterized the participants; RTS contributed to writing and interpretation; all authors provided input on original study design; all authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical Approval

This study was approved by the Institutional Review Boards at both the University of Pennsylvania and the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Informed Consent

Prior to enrolling in the study and completing any study measures, all participants gave written informed consent.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC, part of Springer Nature 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Behavioral and Social SciencesUniversity of the SciencesPhiladelphiaUSA
  2. 2.The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, Center for Autism ResearchRoberts Center for Pediatric ResearchPhiladelphiaUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  4. 4.Department of PsychiatryPerelman School of Medicine at the University of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  5. 5.Department of Psychiatry, Center for Mental Health Policy and Services ResearchPerelman School of Medicine at the University of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  6. 6.Department of Psychiatry, Center for Neurobiology and Behavior, Translational Research LaboratoryPerelman School of Medicine at the University of PennsylvaniaPhiladelphiaUSA
  7. 7.Department of PediatricsThe Children’s Hospital of PhiladelphiaPhiladelphiaUSA

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