Monologue to dialogue
: Linquisitic factors affecting the interactive conversation of young children with autism

  • Elizabeth Scott

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Social communication is a primary difficulty in autism and research highlights difficulties in this area as "one of the main barriers to social acceptance” for this population (Green & Tobin, 2007:309); however, whilst researchers characterise the communication of children with autism as delayed, deviant and atypical, there is a lack of underpinning evidence for these terms presented in the literature. The current researcher advances understanding of the communicative strategies of people with autism by developing a linguistic framework and highlighting pragmatic and prosodic speech strategies that are linguistically relevant for children with autism.

Commonly, research highlights what children with autism are unable to do, for example understand metaphors (see, for example, Rundblad & Annaz, 2010). The researcher's original contribution to knowledge is the identification of both typical and atypical functional linguistic strategies which are adopted and exploited in their communication. The present study offers, therefore, something of a corrective to those studies which focus on the absence rather than presence of targeted language behaviours. The identification of these relevant strategies can provide typical speakers with an insight into how children with autism communicate and have potential suggestions for clinical intervention.

The study’s speech data was collected at an autism-specific nursery run by the international charity, Barnardo’s, with the participation of 14 children diagnosed with autism (2;10-4;5 years). The investigation is constructed within an ethnographic theoretical framework, meaning that it collects and analyses spontaneously produced speech data by observing and systematically recording the social interactions and behaviours that occur within this population. This unconventional approach to the investigation of the communication of people with autism is demonstrated to be an appropriate and worthwhile methodology which
may benefit future research studies, furthering the researcher's original contribution to knowledge.

Quantitative and qualitative linguistic analyses are performed on segmental and suprasegmental features of the speech data collected. The analytic framework adopted reveals previously undocumented linguistic strategies used by the children with autism, such as prosody-only echolalia, sensory-motivated echolalia, and revelatory aspects to the questions asked and Politeness strategies employed by the children. The researcher suggests that people with autism are communicating, just perhaps not in a way which neurotypicals expect or understand. The overarching principle is that if we want to move towards communicating more effectively with people with autism, we should aim to find strategies and processes that underlie patterns in their communication; or, in other words, work towards uncovering the dialogue agendas of people with autism.
Date of AwardDec 2014
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Queen's University Belfast
SupervisorJoan Rahilly (Supervisor)

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