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Analogies May Help Researchers Understand Children with Autism

Adam Green

Adam Green explores how the brain looks when actively engaged in creative and intellectual endeavors.

November 17, 2011 – Psychology professor Adam Green says analogies may be part of the answer to better understanding autism in children and improving their social skills.

Autistic children (and adults) tend to be unable to recognize emotional expressions on people’s faces, leading them to miss social cues.

Green, in collaboration with the Children’s National Medical Center, is using a series of questions, including those involving analogies, to determine differences in brain activity for children with and without the disorder.

Understanding Analogies

“We’re trying to determine, whether … their brains are figuring out the answer in the same way our brains might use frontal polar mechanisms,” said the professor, who directs Georgetown’s Cognitive Neurogenetics Lab.

Green said neuromechanisms in people without autism have been identified in the far front of the brain – an area called the frontal polar cortex.

“That [area] really seems to be important for understanding analogies in general, but especially when the … distance [in relationship] increases,” he said. “Those areas of the brain became more and more strongly active.”

Psychological Construct

Green explores what the brain looks like when it is actively engaged in creative and intellectual operations using a functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging (fMRI) scanner.

“You can have the children do a particular cognitive task or set of tasks that you believe are related to some psychological construct [and study the result],” Green explained.

The professor and his research team developed tasks using illustrated analogies for autistic children to answer.

The first image on the computer screen showed a soccer ball going into a goal, then asked the child to select the appropriate image of what a basketball goes into.

“The idea is that a soccer ball is to [a soccer] goal as basketball is to what?”

The children were then shown an image illustrating ‘soccer ball is to goal,’ followed by an image of a letter. The answer: mailbox.

Semantic Distance

“The relationship between the soccer ball and goal and the basketball [hoop], is actually similar to the relationship between the soccer ball and letter analogy even though they look really different,” Green said. “People with autism generally have a hard time understanding that if things don’t somehow look the same that they can still be similar in some important way.”

The professor characterizes the relationship between the objects as having semantic distance – the soccer goal and mailbox having greater semantic distance. That ability to generalize is important for social health, he said.

“Recent research shows kids with autism are able to do this kind of analogy pretty well where it’s relatively simple,” he explained. “One of the things we wanted to do is figure out what kind of analogies they can do. Is it just the easy ones or can they do those that involve [greater].”

Green’s analogical questions will then become more relevant to social reasoning, asking, “If Bob gives Joe an ice cream cone, and that makes Joe happy, what happens if Bob has a brownie? Will that make Joe happy?”

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