Tracing the Neurocognitive Sources of Communicative Challenges in Autism Spectrum Disorder

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Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is diagnosed on the basis of communicative challenges experienced in everyday interactions, yet the neurocognitive sources of those challenges remain largely unknown. A popular suggestion holds that autistic individuals struggle to predict other people’s behaviors, either due to a bottleneck in bottom-up sensory processing or an attenuated sensitivity to top-down priors when perceiving communicative behaviors. However, studies of predictive processing have produced mixed results in the perceptual domain, and few studies to date have investigated ASD predictive capabilities in the context of live social interaction. This dissertation takes the first steps to bridge this gap in assessing bottom-up and top-down contributions to interpreting genuinely interactive communicative behaviors in autistic and neurotypical individuals. I report the construction and validation of a theoretically grounded methodological framework that allows the simultaneous recording of eye gaze and electroencephalographical activity from pairs of participants engaged in dynamically unfolding communicative interactions. Predictive capabilities are assessed while participants solve a series of non-verbal coordination problems in the two-player Tacit Communication Game. A benefit of this novel communicative medium is that it offers the possibility to manipulate access to top-down priors during communicative interpretation by introducing coordination problems that are more easily solved in the light of previous interactions. Moreover, the computer-controlled interactions allow for temporally precise measurement of communicative behavior to determine any bottlenecks in bottom-up sensory processing. I demonstrate how eye tracking can be employed to assess bottom-up and top-down processing in this live social context through the use of qualitative and quantitative methods and potential methodologies that can be used to further investigate the neurocognitive sources of autistic communicative challenges. Keywords: social interaction, conceptual alignment, mutual understanding, eye-tracking, autism
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