Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 48, Issue 9, pp 2938–2952 | Cite as

Selective Pragmatic Impairment in Autism Spectrum Disorder: Indirect Requests Versus Irony

  • Gaétane Deliens
  • Fanny Papastamou
  • Nicolas Ruytenbeek
  • Philippine Geelhand
  • Mikhail KissineEmail author
Original Paper


Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is often described as being characterised by a uniform pragmatic impairment. However, recent evidence suggests that some areas of pragmatic functioning are preserved. This study seeks to determine to which extent context-based derivation of non-linguistically encoded meaning is functional in ASD. We compare the performance of 24 adults with ASD, and matched neuro-typical adults in two act-out pragmatic tasks. The first task examines generation of indirect request interpretations, and the second the comprehension of irony. Intact contextual comprehension of indirect requests contrasts with marked difficulties in understanding irony. These results suggest that preserved pragmatics in ASD is limited to egocentric processing of context, which does not rely on assumptions about the speaker’s mental states.


Autism Pragmatics Communication Irony Indirect speech acts Request Eye-tracking Executive function Social motivation 



First and foremost, we warmly thank all our participants, as well as participating institutions. We greatly benefited from comments and suggestions made on previous versions of this paper by the acting editor, Joshua J. Diehl and three anonymous reviewers. We also thank Véronique Ginsburg for her help in data acquisition. Finally, we are very grateful to the Foundation Jean-François Peterbroeck and to the Foundation ULB for their continuous support of the ACTE research group.

Author Contributions

GD designed the experiment, recruited participants, ran testing sessions, took part in the result analyses and in the redaction of the paper. FP recruited participants and ran testing sessions. NR designed the experiment and took part in the result analyses. PG recruited participants and ran testing sessions. MK designed the experiment, analysed the results and wrote the paper.


The present research has been funded through the F.R.S.-FNRS Research Incentive grant F.4502.15, a Fédération Wallonie-Bruxelles ARC-Consolidator grant ‘Context in Autism’, and a Foundation Jean-François Peterbroeck grant ‘La pragmatique dans l’autisme de haut niveau’.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Ethical Approval

All procedures in this study were approved by the ethics committee of Erasme Hospital in accordance with the 1964 declaration of Helsinki and its later amendments. All adult participants provided informed consent. Adolescent participants provided informed assent with their parents providing informed consent.


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Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.ACTE at LaDisco & ULB Neuroscience InstituteUniversité libre de BruxellesBrusselsBelgium

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