Understanding Figures of Speech in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

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  • Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are said to interpret language literally. If so, they would have trouble understanding figurative language, independent of their language level. Idioms (e.g. “skating on thin ice”) are a type of figurative language that are used frequently. In this pilot study, we investigated comprehension of figurative language in cognitively-able children with ASD between the ages of 6 and 14 years old to see if their ability to correctly interpret the figurative meaning of idioms (a) increases with age and (b) is better when the idioms are presented in context rather than alone. We assessed idiom comprehension by administering 3 tasks, using the same 10 unfamiliar idioms in each. Each task provided a different level of contextual support. In the first task, participants were asked to define the idiom when it was presented in isolation. In the second task, they were asked to define the same idioms, but after hearing the idiom used in a story. In the third task, participants selected the correct option from three pictured alternatives after hearing the same story. Our hypothesis was that understanding idioms would be better in older children and would be better when the idioms were presented in context rather than in isolation. The results of this study supported our hypotheses and showed that the average number of idiomatic responses increased across age groups on all three tasks, and increased within age groups as the amount of context was increased. These results would suggest that context plays an important role in understanding of idioms regardless of a child’s age.

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    Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 International