A review of: Parron, C., Da Fonseca, D., Santos, A., Moore, D.G., Monfardini, E., Deruelle, C. (2008). Recognition of biological motion in children with autistic spectrum disorders. Autism, 12(3), 261-274. DOI: 10.1177/1362361307089520

A human point-light display is created by filming a set of lights attached to the joints of a person as the person moves. The film is done in a dark room so that only the lights are visible and captured by the camera. By watching these lights as they move in space, typically developing children and adults can identify very specific information about the person, such as the gender and emotional states. In this study, the authors compared 23 children with autism spectrum disorder (7 to 18 years of age; mean IQ = 94; SD=15 Range 85-120) diagnosed based on DSM-IV criteria via ADI against 23 typically developing children matched for sex and age. The children were presented with 20 video clips of point-light displays (10 of a male actor, 10 of a female actor). Five of the clips showed the actor displaying emotional states such as happy, sad, and angry. The children were asked to identify what they see. Responses were coded for accuracy in identifying the object (person vs. other object such as a ball), the action (jumping, running, etc), subjective state (tiredness, bored), and emotional state (sad, happy). There was no statistically significant difference between the children with ASD and typically developing kids in their ability to identify the action, the subjective state, or the object. However, children with ASD displayed significantly more difficulty in identifying emotions from the point-light displays when compared to typically developing kids. This suggests that the reported difficulty in the processing of non-verbal emotional information among children with ASD may be influenced by difficulties in understanding the motional content embedded in whole body movements. Two related comments: The performance accuracy of children with ASD in identifying the action and the subjective states was also below that of typically developing kids, but these differences did not reach statistical significance. However, based on the graph included in the paper, it appears that the mean differences were large and the non-significant finding was most likely a byproduct of the small sample size used. Unfortunately the group means and standard deviations were not provided, which would allow us to test the necessary sample size needed to reach statistical significance. This relates to my second comment. The groups were not matched for IQ. The authors argued that IQ was unrelated to performance in the ASD group, but this analysis is limited by the small sample size of the ASD group, which possibly violated the assumptions of the statistical tool used to examine the effect of IQ (ANCOVA). Thus it is possible that the ‘average’ group differences observed are indicative of group differences in intellectual capacity rather than to something unique to ASD.

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