Scientists find surprising language abilities in autistic children

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Washington, Apr 26 : Researchers have made some surprising discoveries about the communicative language abilities of people with autism.

Robert Stainton, professor at The University of Western Ontario, Jessica de Villiers, a clinical linguist at the University of British Columbia along with Peter Szatmari, a clinical psychiatrist at McMaster University, has found that many individuals with ASD do have "a rich array of pragmatic abilities."

A presentation given by de Villiers, a few years back, revealed that many individuals with ASD have significant difficulties with 'pragmatics', where people with ASD often have difficulty using language appropriately in social situations.

However Stainton noticed less-than-obvious pragmatic abilities at work in de Villiers' examples that led to further studies.

In the new study the team found that many speakers with ASD do not show the same difficulty with literal pragmatics. An example is the phrase, "I took the subway north" from a transcript of a conversation with a research participant with ASD.

The use of the word 'the' could indicate there is only one subway in existence going north. 'The subway' could also be referring to a subway car, a subway system or a subway tunnel.

Taking account of the context and the listener's expectations, however, the individual using the phrase was able to convey the specific meaning he intended. That is, he used pragmatics effectively.

It provided valid evidences that ASD patients can use and understand pragmatics in cases of literal talk, as in the subway example.

"It is especially gratifying and encouraging, because this is an Arts and Humanities contribution to clinical research. Without a philosophical perspective, this discovery might not have been made," said Stainton.

De Villiers and Szatmari have developed a tool that can be used for clinical assessment of pragmatic abilities.

"In the short term, their new tool will help identify where an individual fits on that spectrum. In the longer term, however, by making use of recent results in philosophy of language, it may contribute to our theoretical understanding of the boundary between knowledge of the meanings of words, and non-linguistic abilities - specifically pragmatics," Stainton added.

ANI

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