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In Autistic Kids, ‘Thinking in Words’ Improves Mental Flexibility

In Autistic Kids, Thinking in Words Improves Mental FlexibilityWhen children with autism ‘mentally talk things through,’ they have an easier time unraveling complex everyday tasks, which may lead to more flexible thinking and a more independent life later on, according to research from Durham University, the University of Bristol and City University London.

The study reveals that the mechanism for using ‘inner speech’ or ‘talking things through in the mind’ is present in children with autism; however, they do not always use it in the same way as typically developing children do.

The researchers discovered that a lack of thinking in words is strongly tied to the extent of an individual’s communication problems which begin in early childhood.  However, intervention strategies aimed at encouraging children to engage in ‘mental talk’ appear helpful. For example, encouraging children to describe their actions out loud has been successful for increasing mental flexibility in typically developing children.

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may benefit from verbally learning their daily schedule at school instead of using visual timetables, the common approach.

“Most people will ‘think in words’ when trying to solve problems, which helps with planning or particularly complicated tasks. Young, typically developing children tend to talk out loud to guide themselves when they face challenging tasks,“ said lead author David Williams, lecturer in the department of psychology at Durham University.

“However, only from about the age of seven do they talk to themselves in their head and, thus, think in words for problem-solving. How good people are at this skill is in part determined by their communication experiences as a young child.”

In the study, individuals who struggled most with communication also had a more difficult time using inner speech for complex tasks. Participants with ASD did, however, use inner speech to recall things from short-term memory.

“These results show that inner speech has its roots in interpersonal communication with others early in life, and it demonstrates that people who are poor at communicating with others will generally be poor at communicating with themselves,” said Williams.

“It also shows that there is a critical distinction between being able to express yourself verbally and actually using silent language for problem-solving. For example, the participants with ASD in our study were verbally able, yet did not use inner speech to support their planning.”

Caroline Hattersley, Head of Information, Advice and Advocacy at the National Autistic Society, said, “This study presents some interesting results and could further our understanding of autism. If the findings are replicated on a wider scale they could have a significant impact on how we develop strategies to support children with the disability.”

For the study, 15 high-functioning adults with ASD and 16 control participants were asked to take a commonly used test which measures planning ability. The task included five colored disks which could be arranged onto three individual pegs. The point was to transform one arrangement of disks into another by moving the disks between the pegs, one disk at a time, in as few moves as possible. This task is helped by ‘talking to yourself in your head.’

The volunteers took the test under normal conditions as well as under an ‘articulatory suppression’ condition in which they had to repeatedly speak a certain word throughout the task, in this case, either the word ‘Tuesday’ or ‘Thursday.’

Articulatory suppression prevents the individual from using inner speech and will negatively affect this aspect of planning performance; however, it will only have a slight impact on the planning performance of a person who doesn’t use inner speech.

Almost 90 percent of typically developing adults did far worse on the task when asked to repeat the word, but only one third of people with autism were in any way negatively affected by articulatory suppression.   This suggests that, unlike neurotypical adults, participants with autism do not normally use inner speech to help themselves plan.

The study was co-authored by Professor Chris Jarrold of Bristol’s School of Experimental Psychology and published in Development and Psychopathology.

Source: Durham University

In Autistic Kids, ‘Thinking in Words’ Improves Mental Flexibility

Traci Pedersen

Traci Pedersen is a professional writer with over a decade of experience. Her work consists of writing for both print and online publishers in a variety of genres including science chapter books, college and career articles, and elementary school curriculum.

APA Reference
Pedersen, T. (2018). In Autistic Kids, ‘Thinking in Words’ Improves Mental Flexibility. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
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Last updated: 8 Aug 2018 (Originally: 29 Jan 2012)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Aug 2018
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