In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Language in Autism Spectrum Disorders

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Diagnosing ASD in Children
  • Language Phenotypes
  • Joint Attention and Language Development
  • Phonology and Prosody
  • Semantic Representations
  • Parental Input Affects Language Development in ASD

Linguistics Language in Autism Spectrum Disorders
Letitia R. Naigles
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 November 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 November 2018
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199772810-0223


Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a genetically linked, neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impairments within the social-communication domain and the presence of stereotyped and repetitive interests or behaviors. While previously referring to a group of pervasive developmental disorders (autism, Asperger’s disorder, and Pervasive Developmental Disorder–Not Otherwise Specified), ASD now serves as an umbrella term where severity levels are assigned. ASD is characteristically heterogeneous; that is, manifestation of impairments can vary greatly. For example, nonverbal IQ can range from meeting criteria for severe intellectual disability to within or above the normal range. While language impairment is not a diagnostic criterion for autism, deficits in language are often found—although heterogeneity is again pervasive. While some children with ASD acquire language comparable to typically developing (TD) peers, approximately 25 percent remain minimally verbal, never acquiring functional language. Moreover, for those who have language impairments, the language domain(s) in which notable deficits are found (e.g., phonology, lexicon, syntax, and pragmatics) may differ. Impairment in pragmatics is most characteristic of individuals with autism, with the other domains showing more variability within and across individuals. This article begins with general overviews of ASD itself as well as ASD and language, followed by the journals in which most research concerning language in individuals with ASD are published, information about diagnosing and assessing ASD, and research that illustrates the varied language phenotypes observed in this population. The article then moves to research on joint attention because of its salient role in predicting language outcomes, followed by consideration of research on each language subdomain (phonology, word learning, semantics, morphosyntax, and pragmatics). The article concludes with a very new area of research, which considers whether parent input, both narrowly and broadly construed, influences the language acquisition of children with ASD. This article, unfortunately, disproportionately includes research involving English-speaking individuals with ASD; future updates will attempt to include much new and exciting research involving speakers of, for example, Chinese, French, German, and Greek. In addition, this article focuses on research on language in ASD that is based on behavioral measures.

General Overviews

Two major ‘single-deficit’ theories have proposed; namely, that autism derives from a socially based deficit in theory of mind, in Baron-Cohen 1995, or a cognitively based weak central coherence, in Frith and Happé 1994. More recent proposals, discussed in Kelley 2011, propose multiplex models that encompass heterogeneous deficits in multiple domains. With respect to language characteristics in particular, Tager-Flusberg, et al. 2005 highlights the links between language deficits in ASD and their social deficits, while Kelley 2011 also discusses possible domain general contributions involving executive functioning. Arciuli and Brock 2014 highlights communication strengths and weaknesses in individuals with ASD, while Naigles and Chin 2015 focuses on the developmental progress of language in children with ASD and discusses some methodological challenges to drawing conclusions based on the current data.

  • Arciuli, J., and J. Brock, eds. 2014. Communication in autism. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins.

    A somewhat eclectic collection of papers highlighting the role of communication in some of the language impairments of individuals with ASD.

  • Baron-Cohen, S. 1995. Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.

    An introduction to autism, highlighting these individuals’ challenges with understanding other minds.

  • Frith, U., and F. Happé. 1994. Autism: Beyond “theory of mind.” Cognition 50.1: 115–132.

    DOI: 10.1016/0010-0277(94)90024-8

    An introduction to autism, highlighting these individuals’ challenges with global processing.

  • Kelley, E. 2011. Language in ASD. In The neuropsychology of autism. Edited by D. Fein, 123–137. Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive overview of language in ASD that includes data from both children and adults and discusses possible domain-general (e.g., executive functions) contributions to language deficits.

  • Naigles, L., and I. Chin. 2015. Language development in children with autism. In Cambridge handbook of child language. 2d ed. Edited by E. L. Bavin and L. Naigles, 637–658. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge Univ. Press.

    A comprehensive overview of language in children with ASD, with a special focus on methodological contributions.

  • Tager-Flusberg, H., R. Paul, and C. Lord. 2005. Language and communication in autism. In Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders. 3d ed. Edited by F. Volkmar, R. Paul, A. Klin, and D. Cohen, 335–364. New York: Wiley.

    A general overview of language in autism that links language deficits to social deficits.

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