Exploring the mechanisms that underlie lexical alignment: Evidence from children with Autism Spectrum Disorder
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Conversationalists have been shown to imitate each other’s lexical choices. However, much debate currently exists over the mechanisms that underlie this lexical alignment, with some suggesting that it occurs automatically without conscious awareness, while others argue that it is mediated by the beliefs a speaker holds about their interlocutor’s knowledge. This study aimed to inform this debate by investigating alignment behaviours in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD), a disorder characterised by delayed Theory of Mind (TOM) and impaired social communication abilities. A priming paradigm, in the form of a snap game, was used to investigate whether children with ASD reused the words the experimenter had previously used. Their alignment patterns were then compared to those of typically developing children, of similar chronological and verbal age. Results highlighted that children with ASD produced more alternative targets after hearing their partner use the alternative name than after hearing them say the preferred name. The opposite was shown for preferred targets, with more occurring after a preferred than alternative prime. Additionally, children with ASD converged to the speech of their interlocutor to the same extent as both groups of typically developing matched controls. These results imply that lexical alignment, in this context, is automatic and not mediated by the beliefs individuals hold about their interlocutor’s knowledge. However, there is also evidence to suggest that not all alignment behaviours are related to one general underlying mechanism.