Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 46, Issue 2, pp 394–405 | Cite as

A Multidimensional Reappraisal of Language in Autism: Insights from a Discourse Analytic Study

  • Laura Sterponi
  • Kenton de Kirby
S.I. : Discourse and conversation analytic approaches to the study of ASD


In this article, we leverage theoretical insights and methodological guidelines of discourse analytic scholarship to re-examine language phenomena typically associated with autism. Through empirical analysis of the verbal behavior of three children with autism, we engage the question of how prototypical features of autistic language—notably pronoun atypicality, pragmatic deficit, and echolalia—might conceal competencies and interactional processes that are largely invisible in mainstream research. Our findings offer a complex picture of children with autism in their use of language to communicate, interact and experience others. Such a picture also deepens our understanding of the interactional underpinnings of autistic children’s speech. Finally, we describe how our findings offer fruitful suggestions for clinical intervention.


Autism Language Discourse analysis Conversation analysis Echolalia Pronoun reversal and avoidance Pragmatic deficit 


Author Contributions

Laura Sterponi is responsible for the study design and the data collection. Both authors have made substantial contributions to the analysis and interpretation of the data, have been involved in drafting the manuscript, and have given final approval of the version to be published.


  1. Austin, J. (1962). How to do things with words. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  2. Baltaxe, C. (1977). Pragmatic deficits in the language of autistic adolescents. Journal of Pediatric Psychology, 2, 176–180.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Baron-Cohen, S. (1988). Social and pragmatic deficits in autism: Cognitive or affective? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 18(3), 379–402.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  4. Bernard-Opitz, V. (1982). Pragmatic analysis of the communicative behaviour of an autistic child. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 47, 99–109.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  5. Brown, R. (1973). A first language. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Carluccio, C., Sours, J. A., & Kalb, L. C. (1964). Psychodynamics of echo-reactions. Archives of General Psychiatry, 10, 623–629.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Carnap, R. (1952). Meaning postulates. Philosophical Studies, 3, 65–73.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Carr, E. G., Schreibman, L., & Lovaas, I. O. (1975). Control of echolalic speech in psychotic children. Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology, 3, 331–351.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  9. Charney, R. (1980). Pronoun errors in autistic children: Support for a social explanation. British Journal of Disorders of Communication, 15(1), 39–43.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Chomsky, N. (1965). Aspects of the theory of syntax. Cambridge: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  11. de Saussure, F. (1959). Course in general linguistics. New York: Philosophical Library.Google Scholar
  12. Fay, W. H. (1969). On the basis of autistic echolalia. Journal of Communication Disorders, 2, 38–47.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Ferguson, C. (1977). Baby talk as a simplified register. In C. E. Snow & C. A. Ferguson (Eds.), Talking to children: Language input and acquisition (pp. 209–235). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Foxx, R., Faw, G., McMorrow, M., Kyle, M., & Bittle, R. (1988). Replacing maladaptive speech with verbal labeling responses: An analysis of generalized responding. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 21, 411–417.PubMedCentralCrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Gardner, H., & Forrester, M. (Eds.). (2010). Analysing interactions in childhood. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  16. Garfinkel, H. (1967). Studies in ethnomethodology. Englewood Cliffs: Prentice Hall.Google Scholar
  17. Goodwin, C. (1979). The interactive construction of a sentence in natural conversation. In G. Psathas (Ed.), Everyday language: Studies in ethnomethodology (pp. 97–121). New York: Irvington Publishers.Google Scholar
  18. Goodwin, C. (1980). Restarts, pauses, and the achievement of a state of mutual gaze at turn-beginning. Sociological Inquiry, 50(3–4), 272–302.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Goodwin, C. (2000). Action and embodiment within situated human interaction. Journal of Pragmatics, 32, 1489–1522.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Goodwin, C., & Heritage, J. (1990). Conversation analysis. Annual Review of Anthropology, 19, 283–307.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Hale, C. M., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2005). The relationship between discouse deficits and autism symptomatology. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 35, 519–524.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  22. Happé, F. (1995). Understanding minds and metaphors: Insights from the study of figurative language in autism. Metaphor and Symbolic Activity, 10, 275–295.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Heritage, J. (1995). Conversation analysis: Methodological aspects. In U. M. Quasthoff (Ed.), Aspects of oral communication (pp. 391–418). Berlin: De Gruyter.Google Scholar
  24. Hobson, P. R., Lee, A., & Hobson, J. A. (2010). Personal pronouns and communicative engagement in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 40, 653–664.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Jefferson, G. (1996). On the poetics of ordinary talk. Text and Performance Quarterly, 16(1), 1–61.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Jefferson, G. (2004). Glossary of transcription symbols with an introduction. In G. H. Lerner (Ed.), Conversation analysis: Studies from the first generation (pp. 13–23). Amsterdam: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Jefferson, G., & Schenkein, J. (1978). Some sequential negotiations in conversation: Unexpanded and expanded versions of projected action sequences. In J. Schenkein (Ed.), Studies in the organization of conversational interaction (pp. 155–172). New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar
  28. Kanner, L. (1943). Autistic disturbances of affective contact. Nervous Child, 2, 217–250.Google Scholar
  29. Kanner, L. (1946). Irrelevant and metaphorical language in early infantile autism. American Journal of Psychiatry, 103, 242–246.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Lerner, G. H. (1996). On the “semi-permeable” character of grammatical units in conversation: Conditional entry into the turn space of another speaker. In E. Ochs, E. A. Schegloff, & S. Thompson (Eds.), Interaction and grammar (pp. 238–276). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Local, J., & Wootton, A. (1995). Interactional and phonetics aspects of immediate echolalia in autism: A case study. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics, 9, 155–184.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Lyons, J. (1969). Introduction to theoretical linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  33. Malinowski, B. (1923). The problem of meaning in primitive languages. In C. K. Ogden & I. A. Richards (Eds.), The meaning of meaning (pp. 296–336). New York: Harcourt, Brace and World Inc.Google Scholar
  34. Muskett, T., & Body, R. (2013). The case for multimodal analysis of atypical interaction: Questions, answers and gaze in play involving a child with autism. Clinical Linguistics and Phonology, 27(10–11), 837–850.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Ochs, E. (2012). Experiencing language. Anthropological Theory, 12(2), 142–160.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Prizant, B., & Duchan, J. (1981). The functions of immediate echolalia in autistic children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Disorders, 46, 241–249.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Prizant, B., & Rydell, P. (1984). Analysis of functions of delayed echolalia in autistic children. Journal of Speech and Hearing Research, 27, 183–192.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  38. Raymond, G. (2003). Grammar and social organization: Yes/no interrogatives and the structure of responding. American Sociological Review, 68, 939–967.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  39. Sacks, H. (1992). Lectures on conversation. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  40. Sacks, H., Schegloff, E. A., & Jefferson, G. (1974). A simplest systematics for the organization of turn-taking for conversation. Language, 50, 696–735.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Schegloff, E. A. (1968). Sequencing in conversational openings. American Anthropologist, 70, 1075–1095.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Schegloff, E. A. (1982). Discourse as an interactional achievement: Some uses of ‘uh huh’ and other things that come between sentences. In D. Tannen (Ed.), Georgetown University roundtable on languages and linguistics (pp. 71–93). Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Schegloff, E. A. (1988). Presequences and indirection: Applying speech act theory to ordinary conversation. Journal of Pragmatics, 12, 55–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Schegloff, E. A. (1989). Reflections on language, development, and the interactional character of talk-in-interaction. In M. H. Bornstein & J. S. Bruner (Eds.), Interaction in human development (pp. 139–153). New York: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.Google Scholar
  45. Schegloff, E. A. (1990). On the organization of sequences as a source of “coherence” in talk-in-interaction. In B. Dorval (Ed.), Conversational organization and its development (pp. 51–77). Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing Co.Google Scholar
  46. Schegloff, E. A. (1993). Reflections on quantification in the study of conversation. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 26, 99–128.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Schegloff, E. A. (1995). Discourse as an interactional achievement III: The onmirelevance of action. Research on Language and Social Interaction, 28(3), 185–211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Schegloff, E. A. (2007). Sequence organization in interaction. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Schegloff, E. A., & Sacks, H. (1973). Opening up closings. Semotica, 8, 289–327.Google Scholar
  50. Shannon, C. E., & Weaver, W. (1949). The mathematical theory of communication. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  51. Sidnell, J. (2010). Questioning repeats in the talk of four-year-old children. In H. Gardner & M. Forrester (Eds.), Analysing interactions in childhood (pp. 103–127). Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell.Google Scholar
  52. Sterponi, L., & Shankey, J. (2014). Rethinking echolalia: Repetition as interactional resource in the communication of a child with autism. Journal of Child Language, 42(2), 275–304.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Surian, L., Baron-Cohen, S., & Van der Lely, H. (1996). Are children with autism deaf to Gricean maxims? Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 1, 55–72.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  54. Tager-Flusberg, H. (1981). On the nature of linguistic functioning in early infantile autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 11, 45–56.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  55. Tager-Flusberg, H., & Anderson, M. (1991). The development of contingent discourse ability in autistic children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 32, 1123–1134.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  56. Tarplee, C., & Barrow, E. (1999). Delayed echoing as an interactional resource: A case study of a 3-year-old child on the autistic spectrum. Clinical Linguistics and Phonetics, 6, 449–482.Google Scholar
  57. Tomasello, M., & Farrar, M. J. (1986). Joint attention and early language. Child Development, 57(6), 1454–1463.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  58. Urban, G. (1989). The ‘I’ of discourse. In B. Lee & G. Urban (Eds.), Semiotics, self and society (pp. 27–51). Berlin: Mouton the Gruyter.Google Scholar
  59. Wittgenstein, L. (1953). Philosophical investigations. New York: Macmillan.Google Scholar
  60. Wootton, A. (1999). An investigation of delayed echoing in a child with autism. Language, 19, 359–381.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Institute of Human DevelopmentUniversity of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA
  2. 2.Graduate School of EducationUniversity of California, BerkeleyBerkeleyUSA

Personalised recommendations