Linguistic Analysis Uncovers Hidden Ability in Autistic People
> 4/28/2008 2:19:44 PM

Language impairment is one of the three core deficiencies in autism. More specifically, while some autistic individuals do have large vocabularies, almost all have difficulty deploying words effectively to achieve the desired result. This failure is of interest to linguists who study the difference between semantic and pragmatic meaning. Anyone who has cringed at sarcastic praise knows the important divergence between the official meaning of words and what they mean in special contexts, such as when uttered by an enemy. Psychologists assumed that most autistic people lack the ability to grasp and employ pragmatic meanings, but Professor of Philosophy Robert Stainton continues to find many overlooked skills.

Professor Stainton, already interested in pragmatic linguistics, turned to autistic deficits because rules are often best studied when they break down. He combed through the transcripts of 42 autistic subjects. While he did find many communication deficiencies, especially in the ability to pick up metaphoric meanings, he also found evidence of many successful deployments of literal pragmatic meanings.

Many of the pragmatic deployments that Dr. Stainton observed are so subtle that parents and therapists could easily miss them. He found eight types of pragmatic language, the easiest for the layman to understand being homonyms and pronouns. It is impossible to determine which meaning of a homonym is intended without understanding the context of the statement. For example, one of the autistic children discussed how "light" and "hard" certain things were by correctly picking out the two meanings "bright" and "difficult" rather than the antonyms of "lightweight" and "rigid". 

Pronouns may seem easy to understand and employ, but that is only because they come naturally to most of us. To understand to whom some pronouns refer, it is necessary to understand our conversation partner's past utterances, present attention, and future goals. For example, after explaining that he is worried because he broke a toy that his father told him to take care of, one autistic child says he must fix "his" hand. While this could conceivably mean the hand of the father or the clumsy son, the child correctly believes that the researcher will understand this to mean the hand of the toy.

Dr. Stainton's work is important both for diagnostic and theoretical reasons. His rigorous analysis resulted in a scale that doctors may be able to use to evaluate communication ability. His work also gives us a more positive view of the autistic mind by demonstrating that some autistic individuals that seem to lack any understanding of context actually do have an advanced ability to effectively convey meaning beyond semantics. Pragmatic language requires an understanding that other minds may not interpret a word the same way depending on their experience and state of mind. If autistic people do understand this on some level, it is more likely that they can be taught to communicate effectively.

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