predictors of figurative and pragmatic language comprehension in children with autism and typical development

Open Access
Whyte, Elisabeth M
Graduate Program:
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
June 22, 2012
Committee Members:
  • Keith E Nelson, Dissertation Advisor
  • Reginald Adams Jr., Committee Member
  • Rick Owen Gilmore, Committee Member
  • Carol Anne Miller, Committee Member
  • language
  • autism
  • theory of mind
  • pragmatic language
  • figurative language
Children with autism often have difficulties with learning various aspects of language, including vocabulary and syntax. Children with autism spectrum disorders also often have a difficult time understanding the pragmatic and figurative (nonliteral) aspects of language, as in idioms such as “it’s raining cats and dogs” or “hit the sack”. Learning the figurative meaning of nonliteral phrases from the context of conversations, along with learning the appropriate pragmatic use of language in context, may require a combination of cognitive and social processes, along together with fundamental semantic and syntactic skills. The current study examined figurative and pragmatic language abilities in children ages 5 to 12 with autism (ASD) compared to an age-matched typically-developing (TD) group and a language-matched TD group. The current study also examined the relationship between pragmatic and figurative language comprehension and multiple predictors: vocabulary, syntax, theory of mind, social skills, and working memory. Results suggest that idiom comprehension may not be specifically impaired in ASD beyond delays in structural language abilities such as syntax. Syntax, vocabulary (or both) were always significant contributors to performance on idioms, other figurative/nonliteral expressions, and pragmatic expressions, across three methods of analyses. Multiple regressions indicated that in addition to basic language skills, social skills contributed to understanding pragmatic expressions. For figurative/nonliteral expressions, both social skills and Theory of Mind (TOM) contributed to comprehension in addition to basic language skills. For idioms, TOM skills contributed to comprehension in addition to basic language skills. The findings overall fit particularly well with dynamic systems and neuroconstructivist theorizing on how multiple language, cognitive, and social processes work together in supporting the learning and use of nonliteral expressions in language by TD and ASD children of ages 5 to 12 years.