Date on Master's Thesis/Doctoral Dissertation


Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation

Degree Name

Ph. D.


Psychological and Brain Sciences

Committee Chair

Mervis, Carolyn B.

Author's Keywords

Down syndrome; Williams syndrome; Social referencing


Down syndrome--Patients; Williams syndrome--Patients; Social interaction in children; Social perception in children


The present project examined the regulatory function of social referencing in two neurodevelopmental disorders that have been well defined genetically and are characterized by differing patterns of socio-cognitive development: Down syndrome (DS) and Williams syndrome (WS). In addition, since the social referencing process requires children to coordinate three fundamental abilities (initiation of joint attention, gaze following, emotional responsivity), the present project also included three follow-up studies which examined these abilities separately. Participants were 21 children with DS (M age = 4.97 years; SD = .74) and 21 children with WS (M age = 4.92 years; SD = .76) closely matched on age and gender. The results of the Social Referencing task indicated that the majority of children in both diagnostic groups formed positive opinions about the ambiguous stimulus when the adult communicated a joyful nonverbal message but had difficulty using the adult's expression of fear to regulate their behavior in response to the ambiguous stimulus. Children with DS were more likely than were children with WS to shift gaze between the adult and the ambiguous stimulus. However, the children with DS frequently formed a positive opinion of the fearful stimulus and were more likely than were the children with WS to touch the stimulus. When the adult reacted fearfully to the ambiguous stimulus, the longest look directed to her by children with WS was significantly longer than the longest look directed by children with DS. In addition, children with WS were less likely to form an opinion of the fearful stimulus and more likely than children with DS to resort to superficially imitating the adult's display as opposed to using the adult's opinion of the stimulus to form their own. The results of the follow-up studies demonstrated that children with DS were more likely than were children with WS to initiate joint attention with the adult and to respond to joint attention in triadic situations. In addition, in a situation with a reduced attentional demand on the child than that used in the Social Referencing task, results indicated that the majority of children in both groups formed a positive opinion of the stimulus when the adult communicated a joyful message about it. However, when the adult communicated a fearful message, only one child in each group formed a negative opinion of the stimulus. In summary, the results indicate that there are both similarities and differences in the problems encountered by children with DS and children with WS in the social referencing process. Both groups had difficulty interpreting the communicative significance of fearful reactions. However, children with DS were more successful than children with WS both at coordinating attention in triadic interactions and at identifying the source of the adult's interest. Furthermore, despite demonstrating poorer overall intellectual ability and more limited verbal ability, children with DS evidenced better executive functioning than did children with WS. This difference in executive functioning may contribute to some of the advantages shown by children with DS.