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The Communication Profile in Young Adults with Autism Open Access


Other title
pragmatic language
Autism Spectrum Disorders
Type of item
Degree grantor
University of Alberta
Author or creator
Mitchell,Wendy L
Supervisor and department
Volden, Joanne (Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine)
Examining committee member and department
Zwaigenbaum, Lonnie (Faculty of Medicine) University of Alberta
Hopper, Tammy (Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine) University of Alberta
Pollock, Karen (Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine) University of Alberta
Adams, Catherine (Psychology Sciences) University of Manchester
Nicholas, David (Faculty of Social Work) University of Calgary
Faculty of Rehabilitation Medicine
Rehabilitation Science
Date accepted
Graduation date
Doctor of Philosophy
Degree level
Autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are characterized by impairments in social-communication, and restricted, repetitive and stereotypical patterns of behavior, interests, and activities. There is a paucity of research about the adult population as the vast majority of research into ASD has focused on children and adolescents. As impairments in social-communication are integral to ASD speech-language pathologists (SLP) have a pivotal role to play in the assessment and intervention of adults with ASD in an effort to optimize their independence and productive participation. This study focuses on the communicative profile of adults with ASD who are considered high-functioning (i.e. those without intellectual disability; HFASD). Impairments in social communication, also known as pragmatics, are defining criteria for ASD. Although specific pragmatic problems have been noted in adults with HFASD, the full extent of their pragmatic difficulty remains undocumented, largely because there are few comprehensive assessment tools. Difficulties with syntax and vocabulary also have been reported, but since findings are mixed, it is not clear whether young adults with HFASD have difficulties in these language domains. In addition, our standardized test instruments may not be sufficiently sensitive to detect subtle difficulties with sophisticated syntax. If so, in conversation, adults with HFASD might exhibit problems in vocabulary and grammar that influence listeners’ impressions, but that would not be detected by a standardized test. The objectives of this study were to determine, in comparison to a control group, whether subtle communication impairments of young adults with HFASD would be detected by formal language assessments and/or language sample analysis. The language sample was derived from a simulated employment interview. Performance on the Communication Checklist-Adult (CC-A) and the Nonliteral Language and Pragmatic Judgment subtests from the Communication Assessment of Spoken Language (CASL) was expected to reveal deficits in pragmatic skill, while difficulties in syntax or vocabulary on the Test of Adolescent and Adult Language – 4 (TOAL-4) were not expected. Language sample analysis was expected to reveal subtle differences in language that were not revealed on the conventional assessments. Twenty adults with ASD were compared to 20 controls. Groups did not significantly differ on sex, nonverbal abilities and educational level. A standardized test battery was administered and a simulated job interview with a professional recruitment consultant was conducted to generate a language sample. Transcripts of the language samples were used to generate indices of pragmatics (Pragmatic Rating Scale, PRS), vocabulary (e.g., lexical diversity, lexical sophistication and word errors), and syntax (e.g. mean length of utterance and subordination index). Pragmatics: On the CASL, the average standard score of participants with HFASD was significantly lower than the mean standard score of the controls. Even so, the mean subtest standard scores for the HFASD group were still within normal limits. Scores on the CC-A though, clearly indicated impairment. Results from the language sample, using the PRS also indicated impairment in the HFASD in comparison to the control group. Language sample analysis also revealed that the average length of the interviews was longer for the HFASD group than the controls and included more within- and between- utterance pauses. Syntax and Vocabulary: On the TOAL-4, adults with HFASD had significantly more difficulty with the Sentence Combining subtest than controls although the mean score for the HFASD group was within normal limits. No differences were found on the TOAL-4 for vocabulary, but the language sample revealed that the group with HFASD made a higher proportion of word level errors than controls. For these adults with HFASD, most standard scores on the traditional standardized language tests were within normal limits but language sample analysis and the informant measure identified pragmatic language impairments, social dysfunction, and vocabulary problems. Our findings revealed subtle differences in communicative quality that may have a negative impact on conversational partners. These results may help explain why adults with HFASD sometimes fail to advance beyond a job interview, despite being well-qualified.
This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for the purpose of private, scholarly or scientific research. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.
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