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Autistic Speech and Prosody

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Updated June 13, 2014

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Spoken language involves more than use of words; we vary our pitch, loudness, tempo, and rhythm in speech in order to convey different meanings. These changes are called "prosody," and people with autism often find prosody difficult to hear, understand, or reproduce. What this means is that even people with very high functioning autism or Asperger syndrome may not truly understand what is being said, or may say things in such a way that they are misunderstood.

To better understand the meaning of prosody, try saying the word "really" five times in a row, but change the meaning each time as follows:

  • How cool is that?!
  • I don't believe you.
  • I'm shocked.
  • I'm delighted.
  • I'm telling the truth.
If you did this exercise, you changed your prosody at each repetition of the word -- even though your pronunciation of the word (REE-lee) remained the same. In some cases your voice went up or down on different syllables or to a varying degree; in other cases your voice was louder, quieter, faster, slower.

When people with autism say the word "really," they typically say it, mean it, and understand it in only one way. As a result, they may entirely miss the significance of a comment -- or mislead a listener. In fact, people with autism tend to use language absolutely literally. As a result, sarcasm, irony, idioms, metaphors and similes may go right over their heads. In addition, people with autism may find it very hard to use prosody to express multiple or subtle meanings -- thus limiting their own ability to communicate.

Because many people with Asperger syndrome or high functioning autism can be very bright and have huge vocabularies, difficulties with prosody and language use aren't always obvious. The outcome is that conversational partners may be unintentionally offended or confused, resulting in hurt feelings and negative interactions.

Another issue related to problems with prosody is a "flat" voice, sometimes misinterpreted as lack of interest, lack of intelligence, lack of humor or lack of emotional response. In fact, many people with autism are extremely emotionally sensitive; many are artists, poets and composers whose emotional sensitivity comes out in their art. And many people with autism have terrific senses of humor. But a flat voice, combined with a lack of verbal expressiveness, can easily be misinterpreted.

There are no full-fledged therapies developed to help people with autism overcome deficits in prosody, though experimental approaches are under investigation -- including interaction with specially built and programmed robots. If you are interested in exploring possible directions for improving prosody, you may wish to explore:

Learn More About Autism Symptoms, Types of Autism and Autism Diagnosis

Sources:

ML Bellom-Harn,et al. "Research: Targeting Prosody in an Eight-year-old Child with High-functioning Autism during an Interactive Approach to Therapy." Child Language Teaching and Therapy, Volume 32, Issue 2, p. 157-179, (2007).

JJ Diehl. "Resolving ambiguity: a psycholinguistic approach to understanding prosody processing in high-functioning autism." Brain Lang. 2008 Aug;106(2):144-52.

J Heikkinen et al."Perception of basic emotions from speech prosody in adolescents with Asperger's syndrome." Logoped Phoniatr Vocol. 2010 Oct;35(3):113-20.

Brian Scassellati. "How Social Robots Will Help Us to Diagnose, Treat, and Understand Autism." Springer Tracts in Advanced Robotics, 2007, Volume 28/2007, 552-563.

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