Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 37, Issue 6, pp 1007–1023 | Cite as

Beyond Pragmatics: Morphosyntactic Development in Autism

  • Inge-Marie EigstiEmail author
  • Loisa Bennetto
  • Mamta B. Dadlani
Original Paper


Language acquisition research in autism has traditionally focused on high-level pragmatic deficits. Few studies have examined grammatical abilities in autism, with mixed findings. The present study addresses this gap in the literature by providing a detailed investigation of syntactic and higher-level discourse abilities in verbal children with autism, age 5 years. Findings indicate clear language difficulties that go beyond what would be expected based on developmental level; specifically, syntactic delays, impairments in discourse management and increased production of non-meaningful words (jargon). The present study indicates a highly specific pattern of language impairments, and importantly, syntactic delays, in a group of children with autism carefully matched on lexical level and non-verbal mental age with children with developmental delays and typical development.


Autism Language acquisition Syntax Vocabulary Pragmatics 



This research was supported by the NIMH (R03 grant # MH61032-01), a Young Investigator award from the Journal of Language Learning, and a Dissertation Award from the Society for Science of Clinical Psychology, to IME. We are especially grateful to the parents and children that participated in the study.


  1. Achenbach, T. M. (1991). Manual for the child behavior checklist/ 4–18 and 1991 profile. Burlington: University of Vermont, Department of Psychiatry.Google Scholar
  2. Adams, R., & Khoo, S. (1993). Quest, the interactive test analysis system. Melbourne: ACER.Google Scholar
  3. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  4. Baltaxe, C., & D’Angiola, N. (1997). Cohesion in the discourse interaction of autistic, specifically language-impaired, and normal children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 22(1), 1–21.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bartak, L., Rutter, M., & Cox, A. (1975). A comparative study of infantile autism and specific developmental language disorder: I. The children. British Journal of Psychiatry, 126, 127–145.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Bartolucci, G. (1982). Formal aspects of language in childhood autism. In Advances in child behavior analysis and therapy (Vol. 2, pp. 159–18). Lexington, MA: Lexington Books.Google Scholar
  7. Bartolucci, G., & Albers, R. J. (1974). Deictic categories in the language of autistic children. Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia, 19, 131–141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Bartolucci, G., Pierce, S. J., & Streiner, D. (1980). Cross-sectional studies of grammatical morphemes in autistic and mentally retarded children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 10(1), 39–50.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Bates, E. (1997). Origins of language disorders: A comparative approach. Developmental Neuropsychology, 13(3), 447–476.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Bennetto, L., Pennington, B. F., & Rogers, S. J. (1996). Intact and impaired memory functions in autism. Child Development, 67, 1816–1835.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Bloom, L., Lahey, J., Hood, L., Lifter, K., & Fiess, K. (1980). Complex sentences: Acquisition of syntactic connectives and the semantic relations they encode. Journal of Child Language, 7, 235–261.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  12. Bloom, L., Rocissano, L., & Hood, L. (1976). Adult–child discourse: Developmental interaction between information processing and linguistic knowledge. Cognitive Psychology, 8, 521–552.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Brown, R. (1973). A first language: The early stages. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Capps, L., Losh, M., & Thurber, C. (2000). The frog ate the bug and made his mouth sad”: Narrative competence in children with autism. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 28(2), 193–204.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Carpentieri, S. C., & Morgan, S. B. (1994). Brief report: A comparison of patterns of cognitive functioning of autistic and nonautistic retarded children on the Stanford-Binet – Fourth Edition. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24(2), 215–223.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Chomsky, N. (1957). Syntactic structures. In. The Hague: Mouton.Google Scholar
  17. Cohen, J. (1960). A coefficient of agreement for nominal scales. Educational and Psychological Measurement, 20, 37–46.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Condouris, K., Meyer, E., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2003). The relationship between standardized measures of language and measures of spontaneous speech in children with autism. American Journal of Speech–Language Pathology, 12(3), 349–358.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Cox, A., Charman, T., Baron-Cohen, S., Drew, A., Klein, K., Baird, G., et al. (1999). Autism spectrum disorders at 20 and 42 months of age: Stability of clinical and ADI-R diagnosis. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 40(5), 719–732.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Curcio, F., & Paccia, J. (1987). Conversations with autistic children: contingent relationships between features of adult input and children’s response adequacy. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 17(1), 81–93.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Dahlgren, S. O., & Gillberg, C. (1989). Symptoms in the first two years of life: A preliminary population study of infantile autism. European Archives of Psychiatric and Neurological Science, 283, 169–174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Dalgleish, B. (1975). Cognitive processing and linguistic reference in autistic children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 5(4), 353–361.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. de Villiers, J. G., & de Villiers, P. A. (1973). A cross-sectional study of the acquisition of grammatical morphemes in child speech. Journal of Psycholinguistic Research, 2, 267–278.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Demuth, K. (1996). Collecting spontaneous production data. In D. McDaniel, C. McKee, & H. Smith Cairns (Eds.), Methods for assessing children’s syntax (pp. 3–22). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  25. Diehl, J. D., Bennetto, L., & Young, E. C. (2006). Story recall and narrative coherence of high-functioning children with autism spectrum disorders. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 34, 87–102.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Dunn, L. M., & Dunn, L. M. (1997). Peabody picture vocabulary test-3. Circle Pines, MN: American Guidance Service.Google Scholar
  27. Eigsti, I. M., & Bennetto, L. (2001). Syntactic and memory functions in young children with autism. San Diego, CA: Paper presented at the International Society for Developmental Psychobiology.Google Scholar
  28. Fein, D., & Waterhouse, L. (1979). Autism is not a disorder of language. Boston, MA: Paper presented at the New England Child Language Association.Google Scholar
  29. Fombonne, E. (1999). The epidemiology of autism: A review. Psychological Medicine, 29(4), 769–786.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Foster (1986). Learning discourse topic management in the preschool years. Journal of Child Language, 13, 231–250.Google Scholar
  31. Fowler, A. E. (1980). A comparison of normal and retardate language equated on MLU. Boston, MA: Paper presented at the Boston University Conference on Child Language Development.Google Scholar
  32. Godber, T., Anderson, V., & Bell, R. (2000). The measurement and diagnostic utility of intrasubtest scatter in pediatric neuropsychology. Journal of Clinical Psychology, 56(1), 101–112.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Grice, H. P. (1975). Logic and conversation. In P. Cole & J. Morgan (Eds.), Syntax and semantics (Vol. 3, pp. 41–58). NY: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  34. Hermelin, B., & O’Connor, N. (1975). The recall of digits by normal deaf and autistic children. British Journal of Psychology, 66, 203–209.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Hoff-Ginsberg, E. (1991). Mother–child conversation in different social classes and communicative settings. Child Development, 62(4), 782–796.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Hollingshead, A. B. (1975). Four factor index of social status. New Haven, CT: Yale University Department of Sociology.Google Scholar
  37. Howlin, P. (1984a). The acquisition of grammatical morphemes in autistic children: A critique and replication of the findings of Bartolucci, Pierce, and Streiner, 1980. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 14, 127–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Howlin, P. (1984b). The acquisition of grammatical morphemes in autistic children: a critique and replication of the findings of Bartolucci, Pierce, and Streiner, 1980. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 14(2), 127–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Howlin, P. (2003). Outcome in high-functioning adults with autism with and without early language delays: implications for the differentiation between autism and Asperger syndrome. Autism and Development Disorders, 33(1), 3–13.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Jarrold, C., Boucher, J., & Russell, J. (1997). Language profiles in children with autism: Theoretical and methodological implications. Autism, 1, 57–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Kaplan, E., Fein, D., Morris, R., & Delis, D. (1991). WAIS as a neuropsychological instrument (Manual). New York: Psychological Corporation.Google Scholar
  42. Kelley, E., Paul, J., Fein, D., & Naigles, L. R. (2006). Residual language deficits in optimal outcome children with a history of autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34(1), 87–102.Google Scholar
  43. Kjelgaard, M. M., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2001). An investigation of language impairment in autism: Implications for genetic subgroups. Language and Cognitive Processes, 16(2/3), 287–308.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Lawson, T. T., & Evans, L. D. (1996). Stanford-Binet: Fourth edition short forms with underachieving and learning disabled students. Psychological Reports, 79(1), 47–50.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  45. Lord, C., Goode, S., Heemsbergen, J., Jordan, H., Mawhood, L., & Rutter, M. (1989). Autism diagnostic observation schedule: A standardized observation of communicative and social behavior. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 19, 185–212.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  46. Lord, C., & Paul, R. (1997). Language and communication in autism. In D. J. Cohen & F. R. Volkmar (Eds.), Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders (2nd ed., pp. 195–225). New York: Wiley.Google Scholar
  47. Lord, C., & Pickles, A. (1996). Language level and nonverbal social-communicative behaviors in autistic and language-delayed children. Journal of the Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 35(11), 1542–1550.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Lord, C., Rutter, M., & DiLavore, P. C. (1998). Autism diagnostic observation schedule-generic. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago.Google Scholar
  49. Lord, C., Rutter, M., & LeCouteur, A. (1994). Autism diagnostic interview-revised: A revised version of a diagnostic interview for caregivers of individuals with possible pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24, 659–685.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. MacWhinney, B. (1991). The CHILDES Database. Dublin, OH: Discovery Systems.Google Scholar
  51. MacWhinney, B. (2000). The CHILDES project: Tools for analyzing talk (3rd ed.). Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  52. Marcus, G., Pinker, S., Ullman, M., Hollander, M., Rosen, T., & Xu, F. (1992). Over-regularization in language acquisition. Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, 57(4), 1–182.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Mottron, L. (2004). Matching strategies in cognitive research with individuals with high-functioning autism: Current practices, instrument biases, and recommendations. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 34(1), 19–27.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Ozonoff, S., & Miller, J. (1996). An exploration of right-hemisphere contributions to the pragmatic impairments of autism. Brain and Language, 52(3), 411–434.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Prior, M. R., & Hall, L. C. (1979). Comprehension of transitive and intransitive phrases by autistic, retarded, and normal children. Journal of Communication Disorders, 12, 103–111.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Prizant, B., & Duchan, J. (1981). The functions of immediate echolalia in autistic children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorder, 46, 241–249.Google Scholar
  57. Rapin, I. (1991). Autistic children: Diagnosis and clinical features. Pediatrics, 87(5), 751–760.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Rapin, I., & Dunn, M. (2003). Update on the language disorders of individuals on the autistic spectrum. Brain and Development, 25(3), 166–172.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Rubino, R. B., & Pine, J. M. (1998). Subject-verb agreement in Brazilian Portuguese: What low error rates hide. Journal of Child Language, 25(1), 35–59.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  60. Rumsey, J. M., Duara, R., Grady, C., Rapoport, J. L., Margolin, R. A., Rapoport, S. I., et al. (1985). Brain metabolism in autism: Resting cerebral glucose utilization rates as measured with positron emission tomography. Archives of General Psychiatry, 42(5), 448–455.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  61. Rutter, M. (1970). Autistic children: Infancy to adulthood. Seminars in Psychiatry, 2, 435–450.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  62. Rutter, M., Mawhood, L., & Howlin, P. (1992). Language delay and social development. In P. Fletcher & D. Hall (Eds.), Specific speech and language disorders in children: Correlates, characteristics, and outcomes (pp. 63–78). London: Whurr.Google Scholar
  63. Sattler, J. M. (1992). Assessment of children: Revised and updated third edition. San Diego, CA: Jerome M. Sattler, Inc.Google Scholar
  64. Scarborough, H. (1990). Index of productive syntax. Applied Psycholinguistics, 11, 1–22.Google Scholar
  65. Scarborough, H., Rescorla, L., Tager-Flusberg, H., Fowler, A., & Sudhalter, V. (1991). Relation of utterance length to grammatical complexity in normal or language-disordered groups. Applied Psycholinguistics, 12, 23–45.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Seidenberg, M. S., & MacDonald, M. C. (1999). A probabilistic constraints approach to language acquisition and processing. Cognitive Science, 23(4), 569–588.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  67. Shriberg, L. D., Paul, R., McSweeny, J. L., Klin, A. M., Cohen, D. J., & Volkmar, F. R. (2001). Speech and prosody characteristics of adolescents and adults with high-functioning autism and Asperger syndrome. Journal of Speech and Language Hearing Research, 44(5), 1097–1115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  68. Stone, W., & Yoder, P. (2001). Predicting spoken language level in children with autism spectrum disorders. Autism, 5(4), 341–361.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  69. Szatmari, P., Bryson, S., Boyle, M., Streiner, D., & Duku, E. (2003). Predictors of outcome among high functioning children with autism and Asperger syndrome. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44(4), 520–528.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  70. Tager-Flusberg, H., & Anderson, M. (1991). The development of contingent discourse ability in autistic children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 32(7), 1123–1134.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  71. Tager-Flusberg, H., & Calkins, S. (1990). Does imitation facilitate acquisition of grammar? Evidence from the study of autistic, Down’s syndrome and normal children. Journal of Child Language, 17, 591–606.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Tager-Flusberg, H., Calkins, S., Nolin, T., Baumberger, T., Anderson, M., & Chadwick-Dias, A. (1990). A longitudinal study of language acquisition in autistic and Down syndrome children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 20(1), 1–21.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  73. Thorndike, R. L., Hagen, E. P., & Sattler, J. M. (1986). The Stanford-Binet Intelligence Scale: Fourth Edition. Chicago, IL: Riverside Publishing.Google Scholar
  74. Volden, J., & Lord, C. (1991). Neologisms and idiosyncratic language in autistic speakers. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 21, 109–130.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  75. Wanska, S. K., & Bedrosian, J. L. (1986). Topic and communicative intent in mother–child discourse. Journal of Child Language, 13(3), 523–535.PubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  • Inge-Marie Eigsti
    • 1
    • 3
    Email author
  • Loisa Bennetto
    • 1
  • Mamta B. Dadlani
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Clinical and Social Sciences in PsychologyUniversity of RochesterRochesterUSA
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyUniversity of MassachusettsAmherstUSA
  3. 3.Department of PsychologyUniversity of ConnecticutStorrsUSA

Personalised recommendations