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Auteur: Anne REBOUL

At the interface between language and cognition: the pragmatic abilities of autistic people

Abstract/Résumé: Autistic people have been characterized as deficient in pragmatic abilities, while their properly linguistic abilities (syntax and semantics) were supposed to be preserved. This description, though still currently accepted, is no longer tenable: it appears that, even in high-functioning autistic people or Asperger patients, linguistic abilities per se are less preserved than was formerly thought, while the picture regarding pragmatic abilities is much more complex. Focusing on pragmatic abilities, one reason the picture has changed is that the type of autistic people investigated has changed. Most recent investigations have focused on high-functioning autistic and Asperger patients, with a fairly good language level and preserved mental capacities. In such populations, results show that, in an experimental setting, autistic spectrum groups perform more or less on a par with typically developing controls (the reaction time may be slightly longer) for such standard pragmatic inferences as scalar implicatures. On the other hand, autistic spectrum patients have difficulties, even in experimental settings, with humor, narration and discourse cohesion. In other words, more linguistically dependent aspects of pragmatic abilities seem better preserved than less linguistically dependent, discourse-related abilities. The deficits in pragmatic abilities that used to be attributed to autistic spectrum patients were explained through their deficit in theory of mind: given that most pragmatic theories rely on a Gricean framework, emphasizing the importance of recovering speaker's intention, this made complete sense. The picture of pragmatic abilities described above does not contradict the theory of mind explanation, but it makes it slightly more complex, especially in view of the fact that the high-level populations investigated nowadays can usually pass the first level belief tasks that have traditionally be used to test theory of mind. One interesting possibility, which meets with quite a lot of work on socio-pragmatic abilities in autism and Asperger syndrome, is that autistic and Asperger patients have the relevant abilities (to a certain degree, at least), as manifested by their success in experimental settings, where they are explicitly asked to exert them, but do not spontaneously use these abilities in natural settings. Here, several explanations are possible: lack of motivation, sensory overload, atypical exogeneous attention, deficient mirror system. My communication will review the data and discuss these different explanations.