Contingency learning in preschool-aged children with autism spectrum disorders: an examination of learning simple and complex relationships

Thumbnail Image
Journal Title
Journal ISSN
Volume Title
University of Alabama Libraries

Impairments in social interactions in children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) may be due to difficulties understanding the complex nature of social contingencies, as social information is not always straightforward or predictable. Prior research has shown that social interactions increase with greater predictability and that children with ASD are capable of learning contingent relationships and of modifying their behaviors based on these contingencies. The current study sought to explore contingency learning in children with ASD by examining learning of predictable relationships that varied in complexity. It was predicted that children with ASD would show deficits in contingency learning when the relationship was more complex. Fourteen preschoolers with ASD and twenty with typical development (TD) were included. Learning of simple and complex relationships was assessed using a contextual cueing task. In the simple condition, one picture in an array of four predicted the position of the target. In the complex condition, the arrangement of four stimuli was predictive of the target's location. Across conditions, there were unpredictable trials at the end of the task in which the relationship no longer applied. Contingency learning was measured using difference scores between latencies for predictable and unpredictable trials. Consistent with hypotheses, children with ASD exhibited learning in the simple condition. However, when presented with more complex relationships, differences in performance across predictable and unpredictable trials were negligible. Conversely, TD children did not show the expected pattern of learning across tasks. The pattern of results suggested that TD children showed learning of complex relationships as expected, but, interestingly, did not exhibit overall learning of simple relationships. This is surprising as pilot research clearly documented contingency learning in children with typical development. Overall, these results suggest that preschool children with ASD may have impaired implicit learning of complex relationships but are able to learn simple relationships. Given the importance of early intervention, these results bolster the suggestion that preschool-aged children with ASD have the ability to learn contingent relationships, particularly when information is presented in a salient and simplified manner and may benefit from interventions that specifically teach contingency learning in both simple and complex relationships.

Electronic Thesis or Dissertation
Psychology, Clinical psychology, Cognitive psychology