1. The problem
Visual Self-Recognition (VSR) refers to the cognitive capability of a child to recognize him/herself in a medium, such as a mirror. This kind of early self-recognition capability is the basis of psychological development such as self-consciousness, self-monitoring, self-caring and self-management. As pointed by Ornitz et al., the inability of autistic children to communicate well with others is often attributed to their inability to distinguish the self from others.
Past experimental research on VSR has focused on the following two problems: one is whether an autistic child has VSR and the other is the relationship between VSR ability and other abilities. Most of previous research, however, tried to measure the ability to distinguish only by observing how the subjects reacted when they stood in front of a mirror, without a comparison with their cognitive reaction when standing before others. It is difficult to say whether autistic children have real VSR or not. Furthermore, these conclusions were based only on the result of whether or not the subject was able to wipe off a mark on his/her face. The psychological activities behind the cognitive process have not been explored deeply. Third, most of these studies only observed the subject's reaction in front of the mirror, where the perceived "self" by the subject was a static and present one. Consequently, we cannot know the cognitive capability of autistic children toward a dynamic "self" over a prolonged period.
In order to address the inadequacy of past researches mentioned above, this study explored whether preschool children with autism have a primary cognitive capability to distinguish between the self and others, and investigated the difference between their mirror self-recognition and video self-recognition by comparing these two kinds of cognition.
2. Study 1: Cognitive distinction between the self and others in autistic children
The study was conducted to clarify whether autistic children during the pre-language stage make a cognitive distinction between others and the self.
Six preschool children with autism (age=48-60 months, mean age=52 months; psychological age=19-40 months, mean psychological age=23 months) participated in the study. All of them were boys.
2.2.1 Experiment design
Independent variable: video images of subject and others
Dependent variable: visual behavior and emotional expression
In a quiet room at each of four kindergartens attended by the subjects, the experimenter showed a video which had recorded the subject together with his/her peers 15 minutes earlier. The video player was placed at the subject's eye level, at a distance of 35 cm. The main experimenter, sitting beside the subject and facing the same direction, asked "who is it?" repeatedly during the video. The co-experimenter, sitting opposite the subject, recorded the entire process using digital video camera. The videos of "self-others" and "others-self" were presented in shifts in a random manner.
2.3 Data collecting and coding
All of the recorded content was coded and analyzed according to the Coding Sheet by the second.
Given the purpose of experiment, the Coding Sheet was composed of "visual behavior," "expression" and "language." Each of the items was divided into two categories--"toward-self" and "toward-others." The visual behavior was divided into "glancing," "watching," and "close attention." The actual situation during the experiments was coded by "visual behavior," "expression" and "language," respectively.
(Here the detailed procedures, data collection, processing and coding are omitted.)
2.4 Data processing and reliability analysis
The reliability coefficients of the two experiments in this study were 0.85 and 0.91, respectively.
2.5 Analysis and Results
2.5.1 Comparison of the visual behavior toward self and others of the 6 autistic preschool children (APC)
Figure 1 and Figure 2 compare the visual behavior of six preschool children (glancing and watching the self and peers)
Figure 1 Comparison of the visual behavior (glancing) of the six preschool children
As seen in Figure 1, the rate of glancing differs among the six children. Some children glance at themselves at a higher rate than they glance at peers, but other children indicate the inverse. In one child, however, glancing at the self occurs at a much higher rate than glancing at peers.
Figure 2 Comparison of the visual behavior (watching) of the six preschool children
In contrast to Figure 1, Figure 2 shows that among all six children, watching the self occurs at a higher rate than watching peers.
To identify a possible difference between APC's visual behavior toward the self and others, the rates of occurrence (the frequency of the behavior) were examined and compared. Table1 shows the Means and SDs of the three visual behaviors.
Table 1 The mean occurrence rates of autistic preschool children's three visual behaviors
toward the self and peers
Note: The occurrence rate was calculated by 5 seconds
The total observation time for visual behavior was 150 seconds, of the self and others, respectively.
* p<.05 **p<.01
The results in Table1 showed that the frequency rates of the three visual behaviors toward the self were all higher than toward peers in APC.
According to the above results, it is implied that the six APC have developed the primary recognition to distinguish between the self and others.
2.5.2 Comparison of the emotional expressions of the six Autistic Preschool Children when watching videos of the self and peers
Figure 3 shows the mean frequency rates of emotional expressions of the six APC when watching the videos of the self and peers.
Figure 3 Comparison of the emotional expressions of the six Autistic Preschool Children when watching the videos of self and peers
2.5.3 Correlation between the APC's emotions and visual behaviors toward the self/peers
Correlation analysis was conducted between the mean frequency of APC's three visual behaviors and their positive/negative emotion during the experiments. Figure 2 shows the results.
Table 2 The correlation coefficients between APC's three visual behaviors toward self/peers and their emotions.
* p<.05 **p<.01
Table 2 shows that the correlation of APC's visual behaviors toward self/peers and their emotions differed not only in degree but also in direction.
In terms of "watching," both watching the self and peers were positively correlated with positive emotion and negatively related to negative emotion, however, the degrees were very different. The correlation coefficient between negative emotion and watching the self was high, up to - 0.85.
The behavior of "close attention" to the self/peers also showed a relatively high positive correlation with positive emotion. While giving attention to the self, the correlation coefficient was high, up to 0.74.
From the different correlation between the same behaviors and emotions, it is implied that autistic preschool children have developed cognition that discriminates between the self and others to some extent.
This experiment showed that the autistic preschool children gave more attention to the videos of the self and expressed more positive emotion while watching videos of the self, and attention to the self and peers showed a different correlation with emotions both in degree and direction. All of these results suggest that the autistic preschool children whose supposed mental age is 23 months have already developed a primary discriminating cognition between the self and others, although it might still be in an indistinct, rudimentary stage.
Although the conclusion is based on a small sample, it is significant because it differs from the view that attributed social developmental disorder in autistic children to a lack of discriminating cognition between the self and others. It also provides evidence on which future feasible intervention can be based.
3. Study 2. Comparison of mirror self-recognition and video self-recognition
To clarify the difference in cognitive process between autistic children's visual self-recognition of the static immediate visual self and the dynamic time-delay visual-self in the pre-language stage, the study compared the two psychological processes to see if there were differences between them. The reliability coefficients of the two experiments in this study were 0.85 and 0.91, respectively.
The same as Study 1.
3.2.1 Experiment Design Independent variable: self images in the mirror and video
Dependent variable: visual behavior and emotional expression
In each of the four kindergartens attended by the subjects, about 50M2, one mirrored play room and one quiet room were used to conduct the mirror self-recognition experiment and the video self-recognition one, respectively. (Here the detailed procedures, data collection, processing and coding are omitted.)
3.3 Analysis and Results
3.3.1 Comparison of the emotional expression when recognizing the two images
Figure 5 showed the mean frequency rate of emotional expression of the six autistic children under the two conditions-- mirror self-recognition and video self-recognition.
Figure 5 Comparison of emotional expression of six autistic preschool children under the two self-recognition conditions.
The results verified that the mean frequency rate of autistic children's positive emotion under "video self-recognition" condition was significantly higher than that under "mirror self-recognition" condition, p<.05.
3.3.2 Correlation between the two visual behaviors of self-recognition
Table 3 shows the correlation coefficients of three visual behaviors in "mirror self-recognition" and in "video self-recognition" by the six autistic children.
Table 3 Correlation of visual behaviors between "mirror self-recognition" and "video self-recognition"
*** df=4, p<.02
The results as presented in Table 3 indicates that the correlation coefficient between "glancing" during video self-recognition and "approaching the mirror" during "mirror self-recognition" was high, up to 0.90.
Additionally, "approaching the mirror" during mirror self-recognition was also related to "watching" during "video self-recognition" to some extent. The correlation coefficient was 0.38.
However, "staring" in mirror self-recognition was negatively related to "watching" in video self-recognition, the correlation coefficient was -0.46, which implied that the self-recognitions under the two conditions were different.
The study found a difference between the two types of cognition and that autistic children presented stronger positive emotion during video self-recognition. It implies that autistic children have more interest in dynamic time-delay self-recognition.
However, it showed that mirror self-recognition and video self-recognition are reciprocally related. There was a significantly high correlation between "glancing" in video self-recognition and "approaching the mirror" in mirror self-recognition, which suggests that the two kinds of cognition are interactive and reciprocally influenced by each other.
4. General Discussion
In this study, the cognitive feature of visual self-recognition was explored through two experiments of six autistic children.
The results showed that even autistic preschool children whose average mental age was only 23 months had developed the preliminary capability of distinguishing the self from others.
This conclusion is based on the fact that, in visual behavior, they spent more time in watching the video of the self; and in emotional expression, they expressed more positive emotion when watching it.
The study also showed that video self-recognition of autistic children was better than mirror self-recognition, but there was a correlation between them.
The results of the experiment suggest that the recognition of the self and other in autistic preschool children is not so indistinct that they are indistinguishable, but this distinction is at a vague and incipient stage. This research indicates the need to identify their critical period for social cognitive development to improve their level for self/other recognition.
As a means of educative intervention, video or computer software can be used to enhance the self-recognition of autistic preschool children. Only when the autistic children become interested in the content of intervention, will it become possible to comfortably involve them in this intervention as a way of improving their visual self-recognition.
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