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Auteur: Stephanie DURRLEMAN

Co-Auteur(s): Julie Franck

Syntax Theory of Mind and Executive Functioning in Autism: Revisiting the Links

Abstract/Résumé: A growing body of work indicates a relation between complementation syntax and Theory of Mind (ToM) in children with autism (e.g., Tager-Flusberg & Joseph, 2005). However, this link is based only on complement clauses with verbs of communication and on false-belief tasks which crucially rely on language. Given recent findings that complex syntax may be impaired in ASD adults (Durrleman et al., 2012), one cannot exclude that the link found between ToM and embedding is a by-product of a larger picture of syntactic impairment. Moreover, the weak executive function (EF) abilities often reported in ASD (e.g., Joseph 1999) may also have mediated the link between ToM and complex syntax (e.g., Novick et al., 2005). This study finely explores the development of complex syntax in ASD children, and its potential relations with verbal and non-verbal ToM as well as EF. Our participants included 17 individuals with ASD (aged 6 to 16) and a TD control group matched on non-verbal IQ (aged 4 to 9). Syntax tasks involved the comprehension of subject and object relative clauses (RCs), subject, object in situ and ex situ questions, complement clauses with communication and perception verbs, and a standardized morphosyntactic task (BILO). ToM tasks involved a verbal ToM task (Baron-Cohen et al., 1985) and two non-verbal tasks (Baron-Cohen et al., 1986; Colle et al., 2007). Indexes of inhibition and cognitive flexibility were collected via a computerized version of the DCCST task (Frye et al., 1995). Vocabulary was assessed via the standardized EVIP test. Results show significant impairment for subject RCs but not for object RCs, for subject and object ex situ questions but not for in situ questions, and for complement clauses with perception and communication verbs. Impairment was found for the verbal as well as one non-verbal ToM task. Selective impairment was found with one of the EF indexes of inhibition. Partial correlations controlling for IQ showed correlations between some of the ToM tasks and complement clauses with communication verbs in both ASD and TD children, but not with complement clauses with perception verbs. Various other syntactic structures (RCs and questions) showed correlations with subsets of ToM tasks in the ASD group only. Finally, EF indexes did not correlate with either the syntax or the ToM tasks in ASD. This study demonstrates that syntactic deficits in ASD children are visible with a variety of structures articulated by means of the CP-layer. Correlations among tasks provide a mixed profile of links and independence, suggesting that ToM is not specifically linked to the mastery of complementation, but possibly to a wider sphere of syntactic competence.