Jesse Snedeker and her colleagues at Harvard University conducted a series of studies on language comprehension in autism. The participants were 40 children with autism, aged 6 to 9 years, who had strong verbal skills, and 40 typically developing children who were matched for age, gender, language ability and nonverbal intelligence.
In all of the studies, the researchers used a computer to track where children looked as they heard a sentence. These eye movements provide information about how language comprehension processes unfold over time.
In many cases, the children with autism were able to understand the sentences as well and as quickly as the typical children. For example, the children with autism were able to use the prosody (i.e., pitch, intensity and pacing) of a sentence to determine its grammatical structure and predict how it would continue; they did this as rapidly as controls did.
Similarly, the children with autism made quick use of sentence context to figure out the meaning of an ambiguous word (e.g., “John met a star yesterday” means John met an actor, not a celestial body). Children with autism, however, were less adept at interpreting pronouns (e.g., understanding that “John likes Henry and he loves Susan” means that John, not Henry, loves Susan).
These findings demonstrate that highly verbal children with autism do not have global deficits in understanding prosody or in using context during language processing. Instead, their difficulties appear to be limited to those aspects of language comprehension that involve either (1) inhibiting an interpretation that was initially favored but turns out to be incorrect or (2) using knowledge of the speaker’s communicative intentions and the goals of the discourse to guide comprehension.