Conversational impairments are well known among people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but their measurement requires time-consuming manual annotation of language samples. Natural language processing (NLP) has shown promise in identifying semantic difficulties when compared to clinician-annotated reference transcripts. Our goal was to develop a novel measure of lexico-semantic similarity -- based on recent work in natural language processing (NLP) and recent applications of pseudo-value analysis -- which could be applied to transcripts of children's conversational language, without recourse to some ground-truth reference document. We hypothesized that: (a) semantic coherence, as measured by this method, would discriminate between children with and without ASD and (b) more variability would be found in the group with ASD. We used data from 70 4- to 8-year-old males with ASD (N = 38) or typically developing (TD; N = 32) enrolled in a language study. Participants were administered a battery of standardized diagnostic tests, including the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS). ADOS was recorded and transcribed, and we analyzed children's language output during the conversation/interview ADOS tasks. Transcripts were converted to vectors via a word2vec model trained on the Google News Corpus. Pairwise similarity across all subjects and a sample grand mean were calculated. Using a leave-one-out algorithm, a pseudo-value, detailed below, representing each subject's contribution to the grand mean was generated. Means of pseudo-values were compared between the two groups. Analyses were co-varied for nonverbal IQ, mean length of utterance, and number of distinct word roots (NDR). Statistically significant differences were observed in means of pseudo-values between TD and ASD groups (p = 0.007). TD subjects had higher pseudo-value scores suggesting that similarity scores of TD subjects were more similar to the overall group mean. Variance of pseudo-values was greater in the ASD group. Nonverbal IQ, mean length of utterance, or NDR did not account for between group differences. The findings suggest that our pseudo-value-based method can be effectively used to identify specific semantic difficulties that characterize children with ASD without requiring a reference transcript.
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