Skip to main content

Production and comprehension of French wh-questions by children with autism spectrum disorder: A comparative study with specific language impairment


The nature of structural language difficulties in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) was explored in a comparative study with specific language impairment (SLI) through investigation of the frequently reported ASD weakness in receptive skills relative to expressive skills. Twenty French-speaking children with ASD aged 6 to 12 were compared to age-matched children with SLI on production and comprehension of wh-questions. The two groups displayed similar effects of the complexity of the different wh-strategies. In the ASD group (as in the SLI group), these effects were not greater in comprehension compared to production; moreover, nonverbal ability (which varied from normal to impaired) was not related to language performance. Observed ASD-SLI differences are argued to largely be due to ASD pragmatic deficits, rather than to a qualitative difference in structural language skills.

Corresponding author
ADDRESS FOR CORRESPONDENCE Philippe Prévost, UMR Inserm U930, Université François Rabelais de Tours, Tours, France. E-mail:
Hide All
Allen D. A., & Rapin I. (1992). Autistic children are also dysphasic. In Naruse H. & Ornitz E. (Eds.), Neurobiology of infantile autism (pp. 7380). Amsterdam: Excerpta Medica.
Association American Psychiatric. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.
Baron-Cohen S. (1988). Social and pragmatic deficits in autism: Cognitive or affective? Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 18, 379402.
Bartak L., Rutter M., & Cox A. (1975). A comparative study of infantile autism and specific developmental receptive language disorder. British Journal of Psychiatry, 126, 127145.
Bishop D. (2010). Overlaps between autism and language impairment: Phenomimicry or shared etiology? Behavior Genetics, 40, 618629.
Botting N., & Conti-Ramsden G. (2008). Characteristics of children with specific language impairment. In Verhoeven L. & van Balkom H. (Eds.), Classification of developmental language disorders: Theoretical issues and clinical implications (pp. 2338). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Boucher J. (2003). Language development in autism. International Journal of Pediatrical Otorhinolaryngoly, 67(Suppl. 1), 5963.
Boucher J. (2012). Research review: Structural language in autistic spectrum disorder—Characteristics and causes. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 53, 219233.
Charman T., Baron-Cohen S., Swettenham J., Baird G., Drew A., & Cox A. (2003). Predicting language outcome in infants with autism and pervasive developmental disorder. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 38, 265285.
Cheng L. (2009). Wh-in-situ, from the 1980’s to now. Language and Linguistics Compass, 3, 767791.
Cheng L., & Rooryck J. (2000). Licensing wh-in-situ. Syntax, 3, 119.
Chillier L., Arabatzi M., Baranzini L., Cronel-Ohayon S., Deonna T., Dubé S., . . . Zesiger P. (2001). The acquisition of French pronouns in normal children and in children with specific language impairment (SLI). Paper presented at Early Lexicon Acquisition (ELA), Lyon, France.
Chomsky N. (1995). The minimalist program. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky N. (2001). Derivation by phase. In Kenstowicz M. (Ed.), Ken Hale: A life in language (pp. 152). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chomsky N. (2008). On phases. In Freidin R., Otero C. P., & Zubizarreta M.-L. (Eds.), Foundational issues in linguistic theory: Essays in honor of Jean-Roger Vergnaud (pp. 133166). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Condouris K., Meyer E., & Tager-Flusberg H. (2003). The relationship between standardized measures of language and measures of spontaneous speech in children with autism. American Journal of Speech and Language Pathology, 12, 349358.
Coveney A. (1996). Variability in spoken French: A sociolinguistic study of interrogation and negation. Exeter: Elm Bank Publications.
Dawson M., Soulières I., Gernsbacher M. A., & Mottron L. (2007). The level and nature of autistic intelligence. Psychological Science, 18, 657662.
De Agostini M., Metz-Lutz M.-N., Van Hout A., Chavance M., Deloche G., Pavao-Martins I., & Dellatolas G. (1998). Batterie d’évaluation du langage oral de l'enfant aphasique (ELOLA): Standardisation française (4–12 ans) [Test battery for the evaluation of oral speech of children with aphasia: French standardization]. Revue de Neuropsychologie, 8, 319367.
Demouy J., Plaza M., Xavier J., Ringeval F., Chetouani M., Perisse D., & Robel L. (2011). Differential language markers of pathology in autism, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified and specific language impairment. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5, 14021412.
Durrleman S., & Delage H. (2016). Autism spectrum disorder and specific language impairment: Overlaps in syntactic profiles. Language Acquisition. Advance online publication.
Durrleman S., & Zufferey S. (2009). The nature of syntactic impairment in autism. Rivista di Grammatica Generativa, 3, 5786.
Durrleman S., & Zufferey S. (2013). Investigating complex syntax in autism. In Stavrakaki S., Lalioti M., & Konstantinopoulou P. (Eds.), Advances in language acquisition (pp. 405415). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Eigsti I. M., Bennetto L., & Dadlani M. B. (2007). Beyond pragmatics: Morphosyntactic development in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 10071023.
Eigsti I. M., de Marchena A. B., Schuh J. M., & Kelley E. (2011). Language acquisition in autism spectrum disorders: A developmental review. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 5, 681691.
Frauenfelder U., Segui J., & Mehler J. (1980). Monitoring around the relative clause. Journal of Verbal Learning and Verbal Behaviour, 19, 328337.
Friedmann N., Belletti A., & Rizzi L. (2009). Relativized relatives: Types of intervention in the acquisition of A-bar dependencies. Lingua, 119, 6788.
Geurts H. M., & Embrechts M. (2008). Language profiles in ASD, SLI, and ADHD. Journal of Autism Developmental Disorders, 38, 19311943.
Groen W. B., Zwiers M. P., Van der Gaag R.-J., & Buitelaar J. K. (2008). The phenotype and neural correlates of language in autism: An integrative review. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 32, 14161425.
Grüter T. (2005). Comprehension and production of French object clitics by child second language learners and children with specific language impairment. Applied Psycholinguistics, 26, 363391.
Hamann C. (2006). Speculations about early syntax: The production of wh-questions by normally developing French children and French children with SLI. Catalan Journal of Linguistics, 5, 143189.
Hamann C., Tuller L., Monjauze C., Delage H., & Henry C. (2007). (Un)successful subordination in French-speaking children and adolescents with SLI. In Caunt-Nulton H., Kulatilake S., & Woo I. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 31st Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 286297). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Howlin P. (1984). The acquisition of grammatical morphemes in autistic children: A critique and replication of the findings of Bartolucci, Pierce, and Streiner, 1980. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 14, 127136.
Howlin P. (2003). Outcome in high-functioning adults with autism with and without early language delays: Implications for the differentiation between autism and Asperger syndrome. Autism and Development Disorders, 33, 313.
Hulk A. (1996). Parameter setting and the acquisition of wh-questions in L2 French. In Jordens P. & Lalleman J. (Eds.), Investigating second language acquisition (pp. 237259). New York: de Gruyter.
Hulk A., & Zuckerman S. (2000). The interaction between input and economy: Acquiring optionality in French wh-questions. In Howell S. C., Fish S. A., & Keith-Lucas T. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 24th Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 438449). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Jakubowicz C. (2005). The language faculty: (Ab)normal development and interface constraints. Paper presented at GALA 2005, University of Siena, Siena, Italy.
Jakubowicz C. (2011). Measuring derivational complexity: New evidence from typically-developing and SLI learners of L1-French. Lingua, 121, 339351.
Jakubowicz C., & Nash L. (2001). Functional categories and syntactic operations in (ab)normal language acquisition. Brain and Language, 77, 321339.
Jakubowicz C., Nash L., Rigaut C., & Giraud C. L. (1998). Determiners and clitic pronouns in French-speaking children with SLI. Language Acquisition, 7, 113160.
Jakubowicz C., & Tuller L. (2008). Specific language impairment in French. In Ayoun D. (Ed.), Studies in French applied linguistics (pp. 97134). Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Kayne R., & Pollock J.-Y. (2001). New thoughts on stylistic inversion. In Hulk A. & Pollock J.-Y. (Eds.), Subject inversion in Romance and the theory of universal grammar (pp. 107161). Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Khomsi A., Khomsi J., Parbeau-Guéno A., & Pasquet F. (2007). Bilan informatisé de langage oral au Cycle III et au collège (BILO3C). [Computerized evaluation of oral language at elementary and middle school]. Paris: Editions du CPA.
Kjelgaard M., & Tager-Flusberg H. (2001). An investigation of language impairment in autism: Implications for genetic subgroups. Language and Cognitive Processes, 16, 287308.
Kwok E. Y., Brown H. M., Smyth R. E., & Cardy J. O. (2015). Meta-analysis of receptive and expressive language skills in autism spectrum disorder. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 9, 202222.
Léger E., Prévost P., & Tuller L. (2015). The development of object clitics in French: A comparative study between production and real-time interpretation via eye-tracking while listening. In Hamann C & Ruigendijk E. (Eds.), Language acquisition and development: Proceedings of GALA 2013 (pp. 232258). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholar Publishers.
Leonard L. B. (2014). Children with specific language impairment (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Leyfer O. T., Tager-Flusberg H., Dowd M., Tomblin B., & Folstein S. E. (2008). Overlap between autism and specific language impairment: Comparison of Autism Diagnostic Interview and Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule scores. Autism Research, 1, 284296.
Lloyd H., Paintin K., & Botting N. (2006). Performance of children with different types of communication impairment on the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF). Child Language Teaching and Therapy, 22, 4767.
Lobley K. J., Baddeley A. D., & Gathercole S. E. (2005). Phonological similarity effect in verbal complex span. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 58A, 14621478.
Lord C., Risi S., & Pickles A. (2004). Trajectory of language development in autistic spectrum disorders. In Rice M. L. & Warren S. F. (Eds.), Developmental language disorders: From phenotypes to etiologies (pp. 729). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Lord C., Rutter M., DiLavore P. C., & Risi S. (1989). Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) [French adaptation]. Paris: Editions Hogrefe.
Lord C., Rutter M., & Le Couteur A. (l994). Autism Diagnostic Interview—Revised: A revised version of a diagnostic interview for caregivers of individuals with possible pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 24, 659685.
Loucas T., Charman T., Pickles A., Simonoff E., Chandler S., Meldrum D., & Baird G. (2008). Autistic symptomatology and language ability in autism spectrum disorder and specific language impairment. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 49, 11841192.
Loucas T., Riches N. G., Baird G., Pickles A., Simonoff E., Chandler S., & Charman T. (2013). Spoken word recognition in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders and specific language impairment. Applied Psycholinguistics, 34, 301322.
Loucas T., Riches N. G., Charman T., Pickles A., Simonoff E., Chandler S., & Baird G. (2010). Speech perception and phonological short-term memory capacity in language impairment: Preliminary evidence from adolescents with specific language impairment (SLI) and autism spectrum disorders (ASD). International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 45, 275286.
Mathieu E. (2004). The mapping of form and interpretation: The case of optional wh-movement in French. Lingua, 114, 10901132.
Morin E. (2011). Analyse morphosyntaxique du langage spontané dans l'autisme: un profil similaire avec la dysphasie? [Morphosyntactic analysis of spontaneous language in autism: A similar profile to SLI?] (Unpublished master's thesis, Université François Rabelais de Tours, France).
Perovic A., Modyanova N., Hanson E., Nelson C., & Wexler K. (2007). Investigations of language in autism: Evidence for a grammatical deficiency. Poster presented at Autism Research in the UK (ARUK): From Diagnosis to Intervention, Open University, Milton Keynes.
Perovic A., Modyanova N., & Wexler K. (2013a) Comprehension of reflexive and personal pronouns in children with autism: A syntactic or pragmatic deficit? Applied Psycholinguistics, 34, 813835.
Perovic A., Modyanova N., & Wexler K. (2013b). Comparison of grammar in neurodevelopmental disorders: The case of binding in Williams syndrome and autism with and without language impairment. Language Acquisition, 20, 133154.
Pickles A., Simonoff E., Conti-Ramsden G., Falcaro M., Simkin Z., Charman T., . . . Baird G. (2009). Loss of language in early development of autism and specific language impairment. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 50, 843852.
Plunkett B. (1999). Targeting complex structure in French questions. In Greenhill A., Littlefield H., & Tano C. (Eds.), Proceedings of the 23rd Annual Boston University Conference on Language Development (pp. 764775). Somerville, MA: Cascadilla Press.
Plunkett B. (2010). Understanding QU-questions. In Guijarro-Fuentes P. & Dominguez L. (Eds.), New directions in language acquisition: Romance languages in the generative perspective (pp. 387414). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Prévost P., Tuller L., Galloux A., & Barthez M. A. (in press). Complexity and production/comprehension asymmetries in the acquisition of wh-questions in French: Comparing second language acquisition and language impairment in children. In Blom E., Cornips L., & Schaeffer J. (Eds.), Cross-linguistic influence in bilingualism. Amsterdam: Benjamins.
Quillard V. (2000). Interroger en français parlé: Etudes syntaxiques, pragmatiques et sociolinguistiques [Asking questions in spoken French: Syntactic, pragmatic and sociolinguistic studies] (Unpublished PhD thesis, Université François Rabelais de Tours).
Ramus F., Rosen S., Dakin S. C., Day B. L., Castellote J. M., White S., & Frith U. (2003). Theories of developmental dyslexia: Insights from a multiple case study of dyslexic adults. Brain, 126, 841865.
Rapin I. (1996). Developmental language disorders: A clinical update. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 37, 643655.
Rapin I., & Dunn M. (2003). Update on the language disorders of individuals on the autistic spectrum. Brain and Development, 25, 166172.
Raven J. C., Court J., & Raven J. (1986). Raven's Coloured Matrices. London: H. K. Lewis.
Rey V., Tardif C., Delahaie M., Thomas K., & Massion J. (2001). Etude exploratoire des capacités phonologiques chez les enfants présentant un déficit de langage [Exploratory study of phonological capacities of children with language impairment]. Travaux Interdisciplinaires du Laboratoire Parole et Langage d'Aix-en-Provence, 20, 149168.
Rice M. L. (2016). Specific language impairment, nonverbal IQ, ADHD, ASD, cochlear implants, bilingualism and dialectal variants: Defining the boundaries, clarifying clinical conditions and sorting out causes. Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, 59, 122 132.
Riches N. G., Loucas T., Baird G., Charman T., & Simonoff E. (2010). Sentence repetition in adolescents with specific language impairments and autism: An investigation of complex syntax. International Journal of Language and Communication Disorders, 45, 4760.
Riches N. G., Loucas T., Baird G., Charman T., & Simonoff E. (2011). Non-word repetition in adolescents with specific language impairment and autism plus language impairments: A qualitative analysis. Journal of Communication Disorders, 44, 2336.
Rizzi L. (1990). Relativized minimality. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Rizzi L. (2000). Remarks on early null subjects. In Friedemann M.-A. & Rizzi L. (Eds.), The acquisition of syntax: Issues in developmental comparative linguistics (pp. 269292). London: Longman.
Roberts J. A., Rice M. L., & Tager-Flusberg H. (2004). Tense marking in children with autism. Applied Psycholinguistics, 25, 429448.
Rutter M., Mawhood L., & Howlin P. (1992). Language delay and social development. In Fletcher P. & Hall D. (Eds.), Specific speech and language disorders in children: Correlates, characteristics and outcomes (pp. 6378). London: Whurr.
Scarborough H. S. (1990). Index of productive syntax. Applied Psycholinguistics, 1, 122.
Strik N. (2007). L'acquisition des phrases interrogatives chez les enfants francophones. Psychologie Française, 52, 2739.
Sukenik N., Friedmann N., Tuller L., & Morin E. (2015). Coconuts and curtain cakes: Wh-question production in children with ASD. Poster presented at GALA 2015, Nantes, France.
Tager-Flusberg H. (2004). Do autism and specific language impairment represent overlapping language disorders? In Rice M. L. & Warren S. F. (Eds.), Developmental language disorders: From phenotypes to etiologies (pp. 3152). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
Tager-Flusberg H. (2006). Defining language phenotypes in autism. Clinical Neuroscience Research, 6, 219224.
Tager-Flusberg H., Calkins S., Nolin T., Baumberger T., Anderson M., & Chadwick-Dias A. (1990). A longitudinal study of language acquisition in autistic and Down syndrome children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 20, 121.
Terzi A., Marinis T., Kotsopoulou A., & Konstantinos F. (2014). Grammatical abilities of Greek-speaking children with autism. Language Acquisition, 21, 444.
Tomblin B. (2011). Co‐morbidity of autism and SLI: Kinds, kin and complexity. International Journal of Language & Communication Disorders, 46, 127137.
Tuchman R. F., Rapin I., & Shinnar S. (1991). Autistic and dysphasic children: II. Epilepsy. Pediatrics, 88, 12191225.
Tuller L., Ferré S., Prévost P., Barthez M.-A., Malvy J., & Bonnet-Brilhault F. (2017). The effect of computational complexity on the acquisition of French by children with ASD. In Naigle L. (Ed.), Innovative investigations of language in autism spectrum disorder (pp. 115140). Berlin: de Gruyter.
van der Lely H. K. J. (2005). Grammatical-SLI and the computational grammatical complexity hypothesis. Revue Fréquences, 17, 1320.
van der Meulen J. (2004). Syntactic movement and comprehension deficits in Broca's apahsia. Utrecht: LOT.
Whitehouse A. J. O., Barry J. G., & Bishop D. V. M. (2008). Further defining the language impairment of autism: Is there a specific language impairment subtype? Journal of Communication Disorders, 41, 319336.
Wilkinson K. M. (1998). Profiles of language and communication skills in autism: Mental retardation and developmental disabilities. Research Reviews, 4, 7379.
Williams D., Botting N., & Boucher J. (2008). Language in autism and specific language impairment: Where are the links? Psychological Bulletin, 134, 944963.
Williams D., Payne H., & Marshall C. (2013). Non-word repetition impairment in autism and specific language impairment: Evidence for distinct underlying neuro-cognitive causes. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43, 404417.
World Health Organization. (2010). The ICD-10 classification of mental and behavioural disorders. Retrieved from
Zebib R., Tuller L., Prévost P., & Morin E. (2013). Formal language impairment in French-speaking children with ASD: A comparative ASD/SLI study. In Stavrakaki S., Konstantinopoulou X., & Lalioti M. (Eds.), Advances in language acquisition (pp. 472480). Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Applied Psycholinguistics
  • ISSN: 0142-7164
  • EISSN: 1469-1817
  • URL: /core/journals/applied-psycholinguistics
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *


Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 49
Total number of PDF views: 143 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 421 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 10th May 2017 - 23rd January 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

A correction has been issued for this article: