Mutual (Mis)understanding: Reframing Autistic Pragmatic “Impairments” Using Relevance Theory

Frontiers in Psychology 12 (2021)
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Abstract

A central diagnostic and anecdotal feature ofautismis difficulty with socialcommunication. We take the position that communication is a two-way,intersubjectivephenomenon—as described by thedouble empathy problem—and offer uprelevance theory(a cognitive account of utterance interpretation) as a means of explaining such communication difficulties. Based on a set of proposed heuristics for successful and rapid interpretation of intended meaning, relevance theory positions communication as contingent on shared—and, importantly,mutuallyrecognized—“relevance.” Given that autistic and non-autistic people may have sometimes markedly different embodied experiences of the world, we argue that what is most salient to each interlocutor may be mismatched. Relevance theory would predict that where this salient information is not (mutually) recognized or adjusted for, mutual understanding may be more effortful to achieve. This paper presents the findings from a small-scale, linguistic ethnographic study of autistic communication featuring eight core autistic participants. Each core autistic participant engaged in three naturalistic conversations around the topic of loneliness with: (1) a familiar, chosen conversation partner; (2) a non-autistic stranger and (3) an autistic stranger. Relevance theory is utilized as a frame for the linguistic analysis of the interactions. Mutual understanding was unexpectedly high across all types of conversation pairings. In conversations involving two autistic participants, flow, rapport and intersubjective attunement were significantly increased and in three instances, autistic interlocutors appeared to experience improvements in their individual communicative competence contrasted with their other conversations. The findings have the potential to guide future thinking about how, in practical terms, communication between autistic and non-autistic people in both personal and public settings might be improved.

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Linguistic Bodies: The Continuity Between Life and Language.Ezequiel A. Di Paolo, Elena Clare Cuffari & Hanne De Jaegher - 2018 - Cambridge, MA, USA: MIT Press. Edited by Elena Clare Cuffari & Hanne De Jaegher.
Relevance.D. Sperber & Deirdre Wilson - 1986 - Communication and Cognition: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly Journal 2.

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