The DSM-5 diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) include persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts. Poor pragmatic/social use of language or impairment in the ability to understand and use language in social-communicative contexts is a core feature of ASD. Pragmatic skills involve: (a) using language for different purposes; (b) changing language according to the needs of a listener or situation; (c) understanding non-literal language; and (d) following rules for conversations.
There are many unwritten rules in society that govern our behavior. While most of us intuitively understand these rules, many autistic individuals have not automatically learned the conventions and nuances that make up their social environment. These unspoken or “hidden” social standards can make the world a confusing place and result in life-long challenges. For example, social expectations such as “it is not polite to interrupt others while they are talking,” “take turns in conversation” and “discuss other topics besides only those you are interested in” are not taught and are assumed to be known and understood. We seem to have an “unconscious” navigator that allows us to make intuitive sense of the unspoken rules in society and adjust to the social demands of our everyday lives.
The unspoken rules of social engagement involve the use of the pragmatic, social communicative functions of language (e.g., turn taking, understanding of inferences and figurative expressions) as well as nonverbal skills needed to communicate and regulate interaction (e.g., eye contact, gesture, facial expression). This includes body language and idioms, metaphors, sarcasm, or slang – phrases and meanings that we intuitively assimilate or learn through observation or subtle cues. Individuals with autism tend to interpret language literally and may be puzzled by the common everyday expressions used by a typical peer or adult. Consider how idioms such as “how the cookie crumbles,” “curiosity killed the cat,” and “when it rains, it pours” might have a totally different meaning and result in confusion if taken literally. In order to understand language, we must understand what the idioms in that language mean. If you try to figure out the meaning of an idiom literally (word by word), you will be bewildered. While the typical individual might understand that the phrase “that’s the way the cookie crumbles,” and accompanying body language (e.g., voice, body) communicates to the listener that something unfortunate has happened, to someone with a pragmatic social-communication problem, this idiom will have a completely different meaning and be confusing. The following are but a few of well over 3,000 idioms in the English language.
- Bite off More than you can chew
- Cross that bridge when you come it
- Everything but the kitchen sink
- Get up on the wrong side of the bed
- Have a bone to pick with you
- Have your cake and eat it too
- Kill two birds with one stone
- Put all your eggs in one basket
- Raining cats and dogs
- Run circles around someone
- Till the cows come home
Because social communication deficits are among the core challenges of ASD, a best practice student assessment should include an evaluation of pragmatic competence and not be limited to the formal, structural aspects of language (i.e., articulation and receptive/ expressive language functioning). As a group, more capable autistic students tend to demonstrate strength in formal language, but a weakness is pragmatic and social skills. As a result, they often fail to qualify for speech-language services because they present strong verbal skills and large vocabularies, and score well on formal language assessments. Particular attention should be given to the pragmatic, social communicative functions of language (e.g., turn taking, understanding of inferences and figurative expressions) as well as to the nonverbal skills needed to communicate and regulate interaction (e.g., eye contact, gesture, facial expression, and body language).
Assessments to identify pragmatic language deficits tend to be less well developed than tests of language fundamentals. There are fewer standard measures available to assess these skills in children with autism. Valid norms for pragmatic development and objective criteria for pragmatic performance are also limited. Among the standardized instruments that focus on the social communicative functions of language are the Comprehensive Assessment of Spoken Language (CASL; Carrow-Woolfolk, 1999), Test of Pragmatic Language, 2nd Edition (TOPL-2; Phelps-Terasaki & Phelps-Gunn, 2007), Social Language Development Test-Elementary (SLDT-E; Bowers, Huisingh, & LoGiudice, 2008), Children's Communication Checklist, Second Edition (CCC-2; Bishop, 2006) and Pragmatic Language Skills Inventory (PLSI; Gilliam & Miller, 2006).
Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD, is a licensed and nationally certified school psychologist, and certified cognitive-behavioral therapist. He is author of the award-winning books, A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism and Asperger Syndrome in Schools and Overcoming Anxiety and Depression on the Autism Spectrum: A Self-Help Guide Using CBT. He is also the editor of a text in the APA School Psychology Book Series, Autism Spectrum Disorder in Children and Adolescents: Evidence-Based Assessment and Intervention in Schools. His latest book is A Best Practice Guide to Assessment and Intervention for Autism Spectrum Disorder in Schools (2nd Edition).
© Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD