Sunday, February 17, 2019

Pragmatic Language Skills and the Autism Spectrum

Pragmatic Language Skills

The diagnostic criteria for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) include persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts. Problems with the 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.
Unspoken Rules

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, and 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. They may fail to use appropriate nonverbal communication skills, such as eye contact and have impairments in comprehension, or generally have difficulty communicating with others. As a result, peers often feel ineffective when engaged in social exchanges with a child on the autism spectrum and may avoid that person and/or react in a negative way (e.g., teasing or bullying), further impacting the development of appropriate social skills. 
Consider how idioms or figurative speech such as “how the cookie crumbles,” “curiosity killed the cat,” "kill two birds with one stone," "everything but the kitchen sink," and “when it rains, it pours” will 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 (there are well over 3,000 idioms in the English language). 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.


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. 
A variety of assessment strategies should be used, including direct assessment, naturalistic observation and interviewing significant others, including parents and educators, who are valuable sources of information. 

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). 

It is imperative that speech/language services for children with autism include particular attention 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). Significant and severe deficits in the ability to communicate and interact with others can limit participation in mainstream academic settings and community activities. Moreover, pragmatic deficits tend to become even more obvious and problematic as social and educational demands increase with age. Students with pragmatic language deficits who do not meet the DSM-5 ASD criteria for restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior should be evaluated for social (pragmatic) communication disorder (SCD).  

Adapted from Wilkinson, L. A. (2017). A best practice guide to assessment and intervention for autism spectrum disorder in schools. London and Philadelphia: Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

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 CBTHe is also 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).

© 2017 Lee A. Wilkinson, PhD

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