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A pragmatic-linguistic approach to autistic communication

posted on 23.11.2010, 11:37 by Sarah Johnson
This thesis sets out to provide a preliminary descriptive account of some of the linguistic features characteristic of autistic communication, in order that the effect of the disability on interpersonal communication may be more clearly understood. Special reference is made to two young adult autistic people. Further aims are to enhance our understanding of the limitations of autistic discourse, where there appear to be any in comparison with normal discourse, and to provide further support for the current widely held view that autism is largely a developmental disorder. The methodology used is taken from the general area of discourse analysis and pragmatics, and concerns major concepts and constructs - Gricean Implicature, Relevance Theory, and attempts to link these with the idea of 'Theory of Mind' in autism etc. Thus features of interaction such as conversational structure, coherence, phatic communion and repetition are taken into consideration, as well as prosodic and paralinguistic factors such as intonation, proxemics and gesture. Part of this thesis is devoted to an exploration of some aspects of various non-native models of everyday communication, and, it is suggested in this thesis that some of these aspects are not applicable. Particular attention is also paid to what the literature describes as the autistic use of 'literal' language. The applicability of this notion, along with the commonly held idea of 'rigidity of behaviour', are reassessed in light of evidence suggesting that older, more able autistic people are capable of a degree of 'non-literal' language and verbal game playing. Some conclusions have been suggested about autistic communication; autistic speakers have less difficulty with using the 'code model' rather than the 'inferential model'; autistic speakers' communicative intention is more highly developed than their informative intention; there is little or no evidence of any ability to use inference; autistic speakers are fascinated with testing 'possibility of necessity' (ie epistemic status) and seem unable to distinguish between the two - this disability, when taken with the autistic difficulty with inference, adds up to a massive cognitive impairment in ways which help us to account for their specific communicative disabilities. Thus it has been confirmed that, as the literature has suggested, autistic speakers suffer pragmatic failure of many kinds, for example, difficulty with most discourse features such as adjacent pairs, transition relevance, politeness and prosody, as well as with gesture and posture.



  • The Arts, English and Drama


  • English and Drama


© Sarah Johnson

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A Doctoral Thesis. Submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the award of Doctor of Philosophy of Loughborough University. If you are the author of this thesis and would like to make it openly available in the Institutional Repository please contact:

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