Date of Completion


Embargo Period



Autism, Autism Spectrum Disorder, Common Ground, Pragmatic Language, Narrative, Discourse, Gesture, Executive Function, Communication

Major Advisor

Inge-Marie Eigsti, Ph.D.

Associate Advisor

Deborah Fein, Ph.D.

Associate Advisor

Marie Coppola, Ph.D.

Field of Study



Doctor of Philosophy

Open Access

Open Access


Pragmatic language deficits are universal in individuals with autism spectrum disorders. Pragmatic language skills require the integration of multiple communicative and social skills, and as such represent an intersection of two of the three major domains of impairment in ASD: communication and social interaction. Data from typically developing (TD) populations also suggests that pragmatic language is supported by complex skills such as gesture and the executive functions. Here we investigate common ground, a pragmatic language skill in which speakers adjust the contents of their speech based on their listener’s perceived knowledge, in adolescents with ASD and TD. We designed an experimental narrative paradigm in which participants watched brief cartoons and then described the cartoons to a listener who sometimes shared knowledge about the cartoons and sometimes did not. While the TD sample reliably reduced the number of words in their narrations when the listener shared knowledge about the cartoons, consistent with the common ground literature, this common ground effect was not observed in the ASD sample. The tendency to show a common ground effect was not related to general skills such as IQ, receptive vocabulary, or executive function, in either group. The relationship between common ground and gesture use was difficult to interpret due to an order effect. In the ASD sample only, the common ground effect was positively correlated with age, such that participants 15 and over tended to show the effect while younger participants did not. These results suggest that the tendency to use common ground is relatively stable by adolescence in typical populations; however, it is still undergoing a period of development in adolescents with ASD, pointing to the importance of pragmatic language interventions at this sensitive age. Finally, we present data on gesture use in ASD, suggesting that teens with ASD may be more likely to use gestures when they fulfill a self-serving role rather than a communicative role. We discuss these results in the context of the broader literature on gesture and discourse skills in ASD.