References that speakers make can include both conceptual information, which contributes to explicatures, and procedural information, which constrains explicatures (Wilson & Sperber 1993). The current study compares the references made by autistic and typically developing children in naturally occurring conversational settings, with an understanding of pronouns and determiners (following Gundel et al. 1993) as procedural markers of an intended referent’s cognitive status in the minds of listeners. The result is an exploration of how the metarepresentational impairment associated with autism affects procedural and conceptual aspects of reference production in an unstructured context that many researchers recommend to better observe how autistic children handle the pragmatic challenges presented in everyday life.
Results support a hypothesis that most day-to-day uses of pronouns and determiners do not involve metarepresentational consideration of the mental states of one’s listeners. However, analysis of references to entities judged to be in the current focus of listener attention suggests that autistic children are impaired in recognizing what information regarding cognitive status and conceptual content listeners require. Possible explanations are considered including: impaired metarepresentational mindreading ability limits appreciation of listener needs; early joint attention impairment interferes with recognition of references as intentional acts and subsequent acquisition of pronouns and determiners as procedural markers of referent cognitive status; and as a connectivity disorder, impairment in autism is most manifest when the need for high-level integrative processing is greatest. Monitoring relevant reference information in unstructured social situations strains the integrative processing ability of autistic children, resulting in tendencies toward over- and underspecification.
University of Minnesota Ph.D. dissertation. January 2012. Major: Linguistics. Advisor: Jeanette Gundel. 1 computer file (PDF); x, 245 pages, appendices A-B.
Wicklund, Mark Donald.
Use of referring expressions by autistic children in spontaneous conversations: does impaired metarepresentational ability affect reference production?.
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