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Publication Date


Document Type

Honors Project




Autistic children-Language, Metaphor, Irony, Philosophy of mind, Autism, Theory of mind, Sarcasm


Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have differential problems with pragmatic aspects of language. Past research has reported that children with ASD tend to interpret metaphors, ironic statements, and other figurative language literally and so systematically misinterpret those forms when asked what they mean. The studies suggest that impairments in the children's reading of communicative intentions as part of their general problems with mind-reading (theory of mind (ToM)) underlie these difficulties. However, few studies have tested theory of mind understanding and non-literal language interpretation in the same children, and those studies have typically used very few types or examples of metaphors and ironic language, and tested understanding by a narrow range of behaviors (typically asking the children for explanations of the meanings). The present study looked at 45 participants aged between 9 and 18, grouped on the basis of diagnostic category: Group 1 HFA or PDD-NOS (N= 18), Group 2 Asperger Syndrome (N= 13), Group 3 Typically Developing (N=14). They were tested on their understanding of metaphor and irony in relation to their ToM reasoning. The participants were given non-literal language tasks and a ToM task. It was hypothesized that the TD groups would perform better than the ASD groups in the tasks. Data revealed no statistical differences between the group with AS and the TD group on any of the measures: ToM, metaphor understanding, or irony judgments and explanations. Both groups were essentially at ceiling on those tasks. In contrast, the children with HFA and PDD-NOS were significantly impaired relative to each of the other groups on ToM, metaphor picture choice and explanation, and irony judgment and interpretation. The performance of the participants with HFA/PDD-NOS on the metaphor and irony understanding tasks were strongly predicted by their ToM scores, even when age and non-verbal IQ were partialled out. The failure to find differences between the AS group and the TD control group was explained in terms of the high verbal skills and verbal IQ of the AS participants. Previous work has shown that individuals with AS use their language understanding to solve belief reasoning tasks, even when they continue to show deficits in more spontaneous social cognition. The study confirms the importance of ToM understanding for development of the pragmatic communication skills in individuals with autism.




62 p. : col. ill. Honors Project-Smith College, Northampton, Mass., 2010. Includes bibliographical references (p. 60-62)