Scott Belden

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Master of Arts (MA)



First Advisor

David J. Weber


Individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are known to have difficulties with pragmatic language. There is, however, a subpopulation of those with ASD that exhibits a high competency with pragmatic language. It can be difficult for researchers to find natural contexts to record these high-functioning individuals and examine their spontaneous use of pragmatic language. Additionally, there is a need to move beyond analyzing the cognitive abilities of these individuals to a sociolinguistic exploration of how they use pragmatic abilities to form and navigate social groups.

The research involved in this thesis included audio-visual recordings of 14 high school students with ASD. These students were filmed during metaphor comprehension tests and tests requiring inferences about the mental states of story characters. Also, for four weeks naturally occurring conversations of students and faculty in a classroom were recorded during lunchtimes. I use Relevance Theory as a framework for discussing findings as it integrates aspects of the cognitive and the social contexts.

I conclude that the abilities of students with ASD to understand and produce pragmatic phenomena such as metaphor and irony are better illustrated by naturally occurring interactions than by comprehension tests. Comparing the comprehension tests with lunchtime recordings, I claim that, just as uses of metaphor fall on a spectrum ranging from creative to conventional, so also do uses of irony, echo, pretense, banter and combinations thereof. Likewise, these uses of communication range from weak to strong. That is, utterances may produce multiple weak implicatures, or give a few strong explicatures. Student proficiency in using creative and weaker communication is not only an ability, but also manifests linguistic capital in the social practice. This linguistic capital is used by participants to establish the politic behavior for the emergent network of those with similar linguistic capital. It is also used to distance and exclude other students who are seen to lack the linguistic capital. The combination of creativity and social factors can also lead to the stabilization of new lexical senses.

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