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Article choice, theory of mind, and memory in children with high-functioning autism and children with specific language impairment


Previous studies show that young, typically developing (TD) children (<age 5) and children with specific language impairment (SLI; >age 5) make errors in the choice between a definite and an indefinite article. Suggested explanations for overgeneration of the definite article include failure to distinguish speaker from hearer assumptions, and for overgeneration of the indefinite article failure to draw scalar implicatures, and weak working memory. However, no direct empirical evidence for these accounts is available. In this study, 27 Dutch-speaking children with high-functioning autism, 27 children with SLI, and 27 TD children aged 5–14 were administered a pragmatic article choice test, a nonverbal theory of mind test, and three types of memory tests (phonological memory, verbal, and nonverbal working memory). The results show that the children with high-functioning autism and SLI (a) make similar errors, that is, they overgenerate the indefinite article; (b) are TD-like at theory of mind, but (c) perform significantly more poorly than the TD children on phonological memory and verbal working memory. We propose that weak memory skills prevent the integration of the definiteness scale with the preceding discourse, resulting in the failure to consistently draw the relevant scalar implicature. This in turn yields the occasional erroneous choice of the indefinite article a in definite contexts.

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ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Jeannette Schaeffer, Department of Cultural Analysis & Linguistics, University of Amsterdam, Spuistraat 134, 1012 VB Amsterdam, The Netherlands. E-mail:
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