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Robert Stainton at the University of Western Ontario and Jessica de Villiers of The University of British Columbia have recently conducted a study which aims to measure and define pragmatic capabilities of autism patients, specifically those with Autism Spectrum Disorder, or ASD. Previously, one of the defining features of ASD patients was the deficiency or absence of pragmatic systems, particularly the ability to understand and use language appropriately by societal standards. ASD interferes with the ability to utilize language in practice, interfering with systems such as Entailment, Deixis, Implicature, and Presupposition. As a result, ASD patients have difficulty understanding sarcasm, irony, and abstract language.

According to Stainton, some ASD patients have shown no difficulty in understanding and using literal pragmatic systems, such as reference to specific media in nondescript terms. Although these patients are unable to grasp abstract systems such as metaphors, they show potential in literal pragmatics.

These researchers do not contest the well-established claim that people with ASD have difficulty with non-literal pragmatics, such as metaphors (“Juliet is the sun”) or irony/sarcasm (“Boy, is that a good idea”). They have, however, found that many speakers with ASD do not show the same difficulty with literal pragmatics. An example is the phrase, “I took the subway north” from a transcript of a conversation with a research participant with ASD. The use of the word “the” could indicate there is only one subway in existence going north. “The subway” could also be referring to a subway car, a subway system or a subway tunnel. Taking account of the context and the listener’s expectations, however, the individual using the phrase was able to convey the specific meaning he intended. That is, he used pragmatics effectively.

As autism is one of the most difficult neurological disorders to understand, Stainton’s research provides an important benchmark to its scientific comprehension. The breakthrough in noting ASD patient understanding of literal pragmatics has lead to the development of a rating scale of pragmatic abilities which can be used for clinical assessment. Considering the mysterious nature of autism, multidiciplanary approaches such as Stainton’s may become the standard for research in the field.