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The art of common ground: emergence of a complex pragmatic language skill in adolescents with autism spectrum disorders*


Deficits in pragmatic language are central to autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Here we investigate common ground, a pragmatic language skill in which speakers adjust the contents of their speech based on their interlocutor's perceived knowledge, in adolescents with ASD and typical development (TD), using an experimental narrative paradigm. Consistent with prior research, TD participants produced shorter narrations when they shared knowledge with an interlocutor, an effect not observed at the group level in ASD. This effect was unrelated to general skills such as IQ or receptive vocabulary. In ASD, the effect was correlated with age and symptom severity: older and less severely affected participants did shorten their narratives. Several metrics (including explicit references to common ground, speech disfluencies, and communicative quality ratings) suggested that, although adolescents with ASD did not show implicit reductions in their narrative length, they were aware of common ground, and communicated differently in its presence.

Corresponding author
Address for correspondence: Ashley de Marchena, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia – Center for Autism Research, 3535 Market Street, Suite 860 Philadelphia Pennsylvania 19104, United States. e-mail:
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This work was completed as part of the first author's doctoral dissertation. She would like to thank her committee for their support and feedback: Drs Deborah Fein, Marie Coppola, Marianne Barton, and James Dixon. We thank all members of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Laboratory at the University of Connecticut for help with data collection and coding. Many thanks to the staff at The Learning Clinic in Brooklyn, Connecticut for facilitating the data collection process. We thank three anonymous reviewers for their constructive feedback on the manuscript. Finally, thank you to all the adolescents who participated in this study and their gracious families. Research was (in part) supported by a Fulbright (US Department of State) US Student Fellowship, the Theodore Millon Dissertation Scholarship, and the University of Connecticut Doctoral Dissertation Fellowship to the first author. This project was (in part) supported by Award number T32NS007413 from the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS). The content is the sole responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NINDS of the National Institutes of Health.

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Journal of Child Language
  • ISSN: 0305-0009
  • EISSN: 1469-7602
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