Skip to main content
Text Size: sML

Developmental Disorders and Language

Presenter: Helen Tager-Flusberg, Ph.D.

Characterizing the Language Deficits in Autism: Is There Overlap with Other Syndromes?

For over a decade, research on language and communicative impairments in autism have focused on deficits in the area of pragmatics. This work has explored pragmatic deficits that are universal among individuals with autism and are specific to this syndrome. Theoretically, these deficits have been interpreted as being related to deficits in theory of mind--the inability of children with autism to interpret other people as having mental states (such as intentions, desires, or beliefs) that are causally related to their actions. The first part of my talk summarizes this work. At the same time, during this period, deficits in other aspects of language that are evident in many children with autism have been ignored by researchers. I will summarize recent studies we have completed that have systematically investigated phonological, lexical, and grammatical abilities in a large group of children with autism. The findings suggest that there is a subgroup of children with autism that has significant impairments in these aspects of language. The profile of language deficit in this subgroup mirrors the profile for specific language impairment (SLI). Furthermore, this autistic group shows the same deficits on the two primary clinical markers for SLI: non-word repetition and tense marking in obligatory contexts. Discussion of these findings focuses on the hypothesis that autism and SLI represent overlapping disorders. Evidence in support of this is drawn from genetic and family studies.


Dr. Tager-Flusberg received her doctorate from Harvard University in 1978. Since that time she has been on the faculty in the Department of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, where she now holds the position of Professor of Psychology. She also holds an appointment as Adjunct Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Massachusetts Medical School/Eunice Kennedy Shriver Center. Dr. Tager-Flusberg's research focuses on language, cognitive, and social functioning in children with genetically-based developmental disorders, especially autism, specific language impairment, and Williams syndrome, with particular interest in how these aspects of cognition are related to one another and to the underlying neurobiological pathology and the genetic bases of these disorders.