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Spectrum: Autism Research News

Subtle language

by  /  3 December 2012

This article is more than five years old. Autism research — and science in general — is constantly evolving, so older articles may contain information or theories that have been reevaluated since their original publication date.

In a Viewpoint published last week, David Skuseand William Mandyfrom University College Londonhighlight the importance of creating new tools to measure subtle language deficits in people with autism who are highly verbal. (Read the full article here »)

After decades of research, gone is the notion that most people with autism cannot speak or otherwise hold a meaningful conversation. Language skills of individuals with autism, the authors point out, can be robust, even precocious or verbose.

However, even those who are highly verbal tend to use language in unusual ways, overusing figures of speech, interpreting idioms literally and not picking up on the subtle social cues that are a standard part of conversation, for example. These subtle differences can be tricky to evaluate.

The proposed criteria for autism diagnosis in the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, due out in May 2013, take a step forward by removing the requirement for a “delay in, or total lack of the development of, spoken language” from the core criteria and advising clinicians to pay greater attention to the quality of language.

Skuse and Mandy applaud this evolution. But they also warn that without accurate scales and evaluation tools to assess subtly different language patterns in high-functioning people with autism, the new criteria may create confusion, because they do not tell clinicians or researchers what exactly to look for.

What do you think?

  • How much emphasis should researchers put on language deficits when screening for autism?
  • How might the field develop standardized assessment tools to evaluate subtle language deficits in fluent individuals with autism?

Share your thoughts in the comments section below.