Title: Helping and Cooperation in Children with Autism
Authors: Kristin Liebal, Costanza Colombi, Sally J. Rogers, Felix Warneken and Michael Tomasello
Source: Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders (2008) 38:224–238.

This fresh-off-the-press article comes to us from Dr. Michael Tomasello’s group at the Max Planck institute in Germany. The authors present the results of two studies looking at helping and cooperation in children with autism. The first study compared 15 children with ASD (14 with Autism and 1 with PDD-NOS) with 15 children with other non-ASD developmental delays (40 months of age average). During this study the children were place in situations that either called for helping behaviors (such as picking up a pen that the researcher dropped and could not reach) or a similar situation that did not necessarily call for helping behaviors (such as when the researcher threw the pen on purpose and did not attempt to pick it up). Both groups (children with Autism and children with other developmental delays) showed more helping behaviors when placed in the situation that called for such behaviors. That is, when the experimenter was “trying” to reach an out-of-reach object, both groups were more likely to help than when the experimenter was not trying to reach for the object. The authors concluded that these behaviors showed that both groups understood the adult’s goals and were motivated to help her. In the second study, the same children were placed in situations that called for “cooperative” behaviors, such as a task requiring them to work with the researcher by simultaneously pulling at two cylinders to reach a toy. The results showed that children with autism were less likely than kids with other developmental delays to successfully complete the cooperation tasks. Furthermore, the children with autism were less likely to initiate additional attempts to complete the task when the task was interrupted. The authors concluded that, at least at this developmental period, children with autism seem to understand the social components of situations that call for “helping” behaviors and engage in helping behaviors, but only when such help does not require interpersonal cooperation. However, when cooperation is required to complete the task, these children are less likely to correctly engage with another partner, possibly because the unique “shared” component of cooperation. That is, cooperation requires shared goals, shared attention, and a shared plan of action, processes that seem to be affected in children with autism.

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