Research Summary

Social Communication and Autism

Dr. Wendy Mitchell | University of Calgary
This research summary created by Dr. Wendy Mitchell, discusses the wide range of abilities and challenges related to social communication and autism. Each individual is unique and elements of communication are discussed. This resource may be helpful for parents with young children.


Communication happens when we send, receive, process and understand verbal, nonverbal, and graphic information. Using spoken words, facial expressions, gestures, sign language, printed words and /or pictures we connect with others socially. We share what we feel or want to say with others and in turn, we respond to what others have to share, hence the term ‘social communication’.


Autism is referred to as a spectrum of disorders because the diagnosis encompasses a wide range of skills and abilities. Social communication, one of the autism diagnostic criteria, truly reflects this variation. Impairments in social communication may range from mild to severe and may occur in many combinations. For example, one individual may be verbally fluent and socially isolated, where another person may have limited speech, but be more responsive to social overtures, where still another may use a combination of words and pictures to interact with others but their communication is limited to their wants and needs.


Approximately a third of those diagnosed with autism are nonverbal.1 For those who are verbal, pragmatic language abilities, or the social and functional use of language, is the most significant and the most common language deficit.1,2,3,4,5 Skills involved in prosody (use of tone to communicate intention such as sarcasm), starting a conversation, taking turns during a conversation, remaining on topic, and respecting conversational rules such as being concise and relevant, are all considered pragmatic skills. Pragmatic language also encompasses use and understanding of 1) figures of speech (e.g., ‘Go fly a kite.’), 2) ambiguities or double meanings (e.g., ‘We saw her duck.’) and 3) nonverbal behaviors within a given context.


Other areas of language include phonology (speech sounds used in words), semantics (understanding or use of words), and syntax, (understanding and use of grammar). Speech sound development in children with autism may be slower than age matched peers, but development has been found to follow typical speech sound acquisition patterns.6,7,8. More recent studies suggest that those with substantial language impairments also present with more speech sound difficulties.9 Research investigating use and understanding of words has found that vocabulary development and the ability to generate or understand word associations is an area of relative strength for children and adolescents with ASD.10,11,12  In relation to syntax, there appears to be a subgroup of children with autism who have difficulty understanding and using grammar.13 Examples of grammatical difficulties may include pronoun confusion (e.g. using ‘you’ for ‘I’), difficulties using past tense markers (-ed), and using less complex sentences.


Frequently, one of the first concerns noted by parents are a child’s different language and communication skills.8 An excellent resource for parents of young children is the First Words Project website ( that provides research information and resources to help families support their child’s development.


Written by Wendy L. Mitchell, PhD, R.SLP, Research Manager, Vocational Ability Innovation Lab, Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary.


1. Tager-Flusberg H., & Kasari C. (2013). Minimally verbal school-aged children with autism spectrum disorder: The neglected end of the spectrum. Autism Research, 6, 468–478.

2. Kelly, E., Paul, J.J., Fein, D., & Naigles, L.R. (2006). Residual language deficits in optimal outcome children with a history of autism. Journal of Autism and developmental Disroders, 36,  807-828.

3. Landa, R. (2000). Social language use in Asperger syndrome and high-functioning autism. In A. Klin, F. Volkmar, & S. Sparrow (eds.), Asperger Syndrome, (pp. 125-155). New York, NY: The Guildford Press.

4. Paul, R., Orlovski, S. Chuba Marcinko, H. & Volkmar, F. (2009). Convesational behaviors in youth with high-functioning autism spectrum disorder and Asperger syndrome. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 39, 115-125.

5. Young, E., Diehl, J., Morris, D., Hyman, S., & Bennetto, L. (2005). The use of two language tests to identify pragmatic language problems in children with autism spectrum disorders. Language Speech and Hearing Services in Schools, 36, 62-72.

6. Kjelgaard, M. M., & Tager-Flusberg, H. (2001). An Investigation of Language Impairment in Autism: Implications for Genetic Subgroups. Language and Cognitive Processes, 16(2-3), 287-308.

7. Landa, R., & Goldberg, M. C. (2005). Language, social, and executive functions in high functioning autism: a continuum of performance. Journal of Autism & Developmental Disorders, 35(5), 557-573.

8. Noens, I. L. J., & Berckelaer-Onnes, I. A. V. (2005). Captured by details: sense-making, language and communication in autism. Journal of Communication Disorders, 38(2), 123-141

9. Wolk, L. & Brennan, C. (2013). Phonological investigation of speech sound errors in children with autism spectrum disorders. Speech, Language and Hearing, 16 (4), 239 – 246).

10. Eigsti, I-M, Bennetto, L., & Dadlani, M. (2007). Beyond Pragmatics: Morphosyntactic development in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 1007- 1023.

11. Fein, D., Dunn, M., Allen, D., Aram, D.M., Hall Morris, N.R. et al (1996). Neuropsychological and language data. In: I. Rapin (Ed.), Preschool children with inadequate communication: Developmental language disorder, autism, low IQ. London: Mac Keith Press.

12. Tager-Flusberg, H. (1991). Semantic processing in the free recall of autistic children: Further evidence for a cognitive deficit. British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 9, 417–430.

13. Norbury C. (2017). Eye-tracking as a window on language processing in autism spectrum disorder. In: Naigles L. (Ed.), Innovative Investigations of Language in Autism. (pp. 13 -33). New York, NY: APA Books.


Photo by Jessica Da Rosa on Unsplash

Load more reviews
How helpful was this resource?
Comment by from