Pragmatics and ASD

To be successful communicators, not only must individuals understand and use words correctly, but they must also utilize linguistic context (i.e., infer meaning based on prior knowledge and experiences) and social context. Hence the social use of language which is the pragmatic component is the most important aspect that affects communication. Pragmatic language binds together semantics, morphology, syntax, and overall language comprehension and oral expression for the purpose of effective communication. It is the final element needed for appropriate and effective interaction to occur, requiring an understanding of social and cultural norms in order to use language in specific contexts and for specific purposes. Without appropriate pragmatic language skills, quality communication cannot occur.

A broad array of linguistic skills works cohesively to produce pragmatic language. These include appropriate turn-taking, politeness, proper introduction to a topic, stylistic variations adjusted for different listeners, and topic maintenance and changes in direction or intention. In addition, nonverbal language cues, such as adequate eye contact and gaze, body language, micro-expressions of the face, and gestures, are all integral components of pragmatic language.  

An examination of the pragmatic performance of children with ASD often reveals that their greatest strengths are on instrumental tasks, which are awareness of basic social routines and use of social routine language. Performing well on these tasks demonstrates their ability to decide whether greetings, requests, conversational turn-taking, etc., are appropriate or not, as well as demonstrates his ability to perform means-end tasks with appropriate language. Despite these strengths, they struggle on tasks that measure awareness of social context cues and the ability to understand the intent of others and infer what others are thinking (perspective taking). This also includes detecting nonverbal cues, understanding indirectly implied requests and/or statements (e.g., idioms, expressions), making appropriate inferences (e.g., sarcasm), and making judgments about social context when situational cues change. Another area of challenge was on the non-instrumental tasks (affective expression) and paralinguistic cohesion tasks (paralinguistic decoding and paralinguistic signals). Non-instrumental tasks are considered higher order language tasks that require higher level thought processing. Paralinguistic cohesion is both the ability to detect a speaker’s intent and express a variety of intent with the help of nonverbal signals, such as facial expressions, tone of voice, inflections in prosody, gestures, and overall body language. They often exhibit reduced use of facial expressions (e.g., flat affect and little or no movement of the eyebrows when surprised or expressing empathy, frustration, sorrow, or anger) and inappropriate use of inflection in prosody across various types of communicative intent; all of these difficulties may result in breakdowns during reciprocal communication. 

A core characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a deficiency in social communication and interaction. Though a wide range of verbal language abilities are reported in individuals with ASD, a striking feature about their language profile is a universal impairment in pragmatic language. The consequences of the social communication impairments in children with ASD are far reaching and life-long, and tailored pragmatic language interventions have the potential to reduce these impacts for children with ASD. Pragmatic language interventions that recognize the increasing complexity of social interactions would aid in the reduction of the long-term psychosocial impacts that these deficits can have on the development of quality relationships, which in turn can reduce social exclusion and promote resilience. Group interventions appear to be more effective than those delivered one-on-one, and research suggests that the inclusion of typically developing peers may have the potential to increase the effectiveness of group interventions. 


Author: Leeba Babu, M.S. CCC-SLP


A systematic review of pragmatic language interventions for children with autism spectrum disorder, Lauren Parsons1*, Reinie Cordier1, Natalie Munro1,2, Annette Joosten1, Rene ́e Speyer3,  DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0172242 

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Disclaimer: The information provided in this blog is for general informational purposes only and should not be considered as professional advice. The content is based on the author's personal experiences, research, and opinions. It is always recommended to consult with a qualified professional or expert before making any decisions or taking action based on the information provided in this blog.

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