Selective Pragmatic Impairment in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Indirect Requests Versus Irony

Abstract

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is often described as being characterised by a uniform pragmatic impairment. However, recent evidence suggests that some areas of pragmatic functioning are preserved. This study seeks to determine to which extent context-based derivation of non-linguistically encoded meaning is functional in ASD. We compare the performance of 24 adults with ASD, and matched neuro-typical adults in two act-out pragmatic tasks. The first task examines generation of indirect request interpretations, and the second the comprehension of irony. Intact contextual comprehension of indirect requests contrasts with marked difficulties in understanding irony. These results suggest that preserved pragmatics in ASD is limited to egocentric processing of context, which does not rely on assumptions about the speaker’s mental states.

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Notes

  1. 1.

    In order to make the task as non-challenging as possible for ASD participants, our design did not include negative ironic sentences, which would correspond to ‘ironic compliments’. Pexman et al. (2011) found a floor performance on ironic compliments for children with autism (as well as for age- and verbal-matched typically developing children). Such forms of irony are much less canonical (Kreuz 2000), and are very difficult to grasp, be it by adults (Climie and Pexman 2008) or children (Filippova and Astington 2008). This methodological choice should have no impact on potential group differences on ironic items. This is especially so because, using exactly the same design, Deliens et al. (2018) found no evidence that NT participants would rely on the fact that negative statements are always sincere.

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Acknowledgments

First and foremost, we warmly thank all our participants, as well as participating institutions. We greatly benefited from comments and suggestions made on previous versions of this paper by the acting editor, Joshua J. Diehl and three anonymous reviewers. We also thank Véronique Ginsburg for her help in data acquisition. Finally, we are very grateful to the Foundation Jean-François Peterbroeck and to the Foundation ULB for their continuous support of the ACTE research group.

Funding

The present research has been funded through the F.R.S.-FNRS Research Incentive grant F.4502.15, a Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles ARC-Consolidator grant ‘Context in Autism’, and a Foundation Jean-François Peterbroeck grant ‘La pragmatique dans l’autisme de haut niveau’.

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GD designed the experiment, recruited participants, ran testing sessions, took part in the result analyses and in the redaction of the paper. FP recruited participants and ran testing sessions. NR designed the experiment and took part in the result analyses. PG recruited participants and ran testing sessions. MK designed the experiment, analysed the results and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Mikhail Kissine.

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All procedures in this study were approved by the ethics committee of Erasme Hospital in accordance with the 1964 declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments. All adult participants provided informed consent. Adolescent participants provided informed assent with their parents providing informed consent.

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Deliens, G., Papastamou, F., Ruytenbeek, N. et al. Selective Pragmatic Impairment in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Indirect Requests Versus Irony. J Autism Dev Disord 48, 2938–2952 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10803-018-3561-6

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Keywords

  • Autism
  • Pragmatics
  • Communication
  • Irony
  • Indirect speech acts
  • Request
  • Eye-tracking
  • Executive function
  • Social motivation