The Communication Profile and Quality of Communication in Young Adults with Autism

Friday, May 16, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
W. Mitchell and J. Volden, University of Alberta, Edmonton, AB, Canada

Little is known about the overall communicative profile of high-functioning adults with autism spectrum disorder (HFASD) and even less about how listeners react to it. A variety of communication impairments have all been documented but results have been mixed across studies.  Listeners judge communicatively-impaired individuals more negatively (e.g., as less likeable, employable) than those with typical communication but this issue has not been studied in adults with HFASD. 


To compare (1) communicative profiles of 15 adults with HFASD to matched controls using a battery of communication measures and (2) naïve listener impressions of communicative quality. Performance on the Communication Checklist-Adult (CC-A) and the Non-Literal Language (NLL) and Pragmatic Judgment (PJ) subtests from the Communication Assessment of Spoken Language (CASL) is expected to reveal deficits in pragmatic skill, while difficulties in syntax or vocabulary on the Test of Adolescent and Adult Language – 4 (TOAL-4) may or may not be evident. We expect community listeners to judge communicative quality of adults with HFASD as poorer than controls.


Participants, matched on age, performance IQs, schooling and gender, were given subtests from the TOAL-4 and the CASL and an informant completed the CC-A. Participants also completed a simulated “getting to know you” job interview with a professional recruitment consultant. To assess communication quality, 10 community listeners rated the ‘quality’ of communication, using a 7-point scale, in audio-taped interviews of 4 HFASD and 4 controls.


A MANOVA, with diagnostic group as IV and subtest scores for semantics, syntax and pragmatics as DVs. found significant group differences (F (2, 27) = 18.01,α < .05) for pragmatics (NLL and PJ subtests) between the HFASD group (M=87, M=84, respectively) and the controls (M=106, M=100, respectively). Even so, scores were essentially within normal limits for the HFASD group. A MANOVA with diagnostic group as IV and CC-A composite scores (Structural Language, Pragmatic Skill, and Social Engagement) found significant differences (F (3, 26) = 21.95, Bonferroni adjusted α = .017), between the HFASD (Ms = 7.4, 4.8, 2,8, respectively) and the controls (Ms=12, 10.6, 11.4). Mean quality ratings for the interviews of participants in the HFASD group (M=3.97, SD = 1.87)) were significantly different than average ratings of quality for the controls (M= 5.6, SD = 1.23; t (67.5) = 4.57).


For these adults with HFASD, standard scores on the TOAL-4 and the CASL did not indicate impairment, but results from the CC-A detected pragmatic and social dysfunction. Whitehouse and Bishop (2009) note that impaired scores on 2 or more subscales of the CC-A indicate communication difficulties that influence everyday life . Importantly, everyday listeners rated the quality of communication in the simulated interviews of adults with HFASD as significantly poorer than controls. Thus, even subtle differences in quality can have a negative impact on conversational partners. If these findings hold true in our larger sample, it may help explain why adults with HFA sometimes fail to advance beyond a job interview, despite being well-qualified.