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Auteur: Napoleon KATSOS

Co-Auteur(s): Clara Andrés Roqueta, Universitat Jaume I de Castelló, Spain

Pragmatic competence of people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders: is there a link with grammatical competence?

Abstract/Résumé: Are people with Autistic Spectrum Disorders (ASD) challenged by pragmatics, and if so, which aspect(s) of autistic symptomatology are these difficulties related to? The received view suggests that while vocabulary and grammar may vary from non-verbal to fully neuro-typical, all people with ASD face difficulties with pragmatic. These may be related to deficits in Central Coherence or Theory of Mind. However, Norbury (2005) reports that when general language competence is carefully taken into account, people with ASD perform as well as language-matched controls though lower than aged-matched neuro-typical peers. Nevertheless, other recent work reports that the ability to detect violations of informativeness is fully preserved in people with ASD, who perform at the neuro-typical level. We argue that many of the phenomena under study, which include metaphor, idioms and lexical disambiguation, are indeed expected to be dependent on general language, since shallow vocabulary entries may prevent access to non-frequent (and non-literal) meanings. As such these studies are not a direct test of pragmatics. Informativeness tasks do test pragmatics directly. However, existing studies have not controlled the effect of language level as carefully as possible or for the effect of an egocentric point of view. In an empirical study, a group of children with ASD (n= 20; mean age: 8:3 range: 6:1 – 11:9), a group of typically-developing age-matched peers (TD-AM), and two groups language-matched to ASD group (one of younger typically-developing children (TD-LM), and one group of children with Specific Language Impairment) are tested on informativeness (a pragmatic task where an egocentric participant could do well), and on Happe’s 2003, Strange Stories, (where an egocentric speaker cannot do well). As regards informativeness, the ASD group performed at similar levels as the SLI and the LM-TD groups and correct performance was predicted by general language. As regards Strange Stories, the ASD group performed lower than even the language-matched groups, and it is Theory of Mind that predicted correct performance. The findings suggest that people with ASD do face difficulties with pragmatic compared to the neuro-typical population. These difficulties are in keeping with their overall competence with grammar and vocabulary, if the task does not require them to switch from an egocentric perspective. A careful analysis of the prerequisite for success in each task can help us understand the differential contribution of vocabulary, grammar, and theory of mind in pragmatics in ASD.