Tager-Flusberg. Language and understanding minds: connections in autism

Another reading from Ling8920

Tager-Flusberg, H. (2000). Language and understanding minds: connections in autism. In S. Baron-Cohen, H. Tager-Flusberg, & D. J. Cohen (Eds.), Understanding other minds: Perspectives from autism and developmental cognitive neuroscience (2nd ed., pp. 1–45). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Tager-Flusberg noted that recent research had identified links among autism, impairment in pragmatic function—“in the ability to use language to communicate effectively in a range of social contexts”—and theory of mind (p. 3). But she is distressed by the “relative neglect” of study of impairments in lexical and syntactic function in the same population. The aim of this book chapter is to explore the relation of theory of mind to deficits in lexical-semantics, syntax, and pragmatics among autistic persons. She suggests that two views, one that “understanding of mind is a prerequisite for acquiring language” and the other that “children come to understand that people have minds with contents different from their own” by using language, call for studies to create a “more detailed developmental model of how different components of a theory of mind might be causally related at different points in time to specific aspects of pragmatics, communication and discourse skills” (p. 10).

Introducing theory of mind, Tager-Flusberg notes, “Toward the end of the first year of life infants come to understand that people are intentional volitional beings whose experience and attention to the world around them may be different from their own view” (p. 4). They demonstrate this through joint attention.

With regard to knowledge of language pragmatics, Autistic children “do use language to maintain some social contact…, [but] they rarely comment on ongoing or past activity, use language to seek or share attention, provide new information, or express intentions, volition or other mental states” (p. 5). Autistic children struggle with the new/given information distinction; Gricean maxims (quality, quantity, relevance, clarity); and “intended rather than literal meaning”, including metaphor and figurative speech, all related to the intent of the speaker (pp. 6-7).

As for lexical knowledge, Tager-Flusberg reports on the work of Happé, who showed that autistic children need to have a higher lexical-semantic skill level than non-autistic children to solve false belief problems (p. 12). These studies consider general lexical knowledge, but Tager-Flusberg delves into knowledge of verbs that may more particularly relate to autism, including cognition verbs and communication verbs (pp. 13 et seq.). She narrates studies that suggest a complex relation between the development of theory of mind and knowledge of cognition and communication verbs (pp. 14-15). For example, Tager-Flusberg and colleagues found that syntactic knowledge, measured by the “Sentence Structure subtest of the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF-R),” was a strong predictor of performance on false belief tasks by austici participants (p. 15).

Tager-Flusberg explores this connection more deeply in the context of complementation of propositions, as she says (citing Pinker & Bloom, 1990), “From an evolutionary perspective, those parts of the grammar (complementation and control) that allow for the embedding of one propositional argument under another proposition seemed to be specially designed for the expression of propositional attitudes that are at the heart of a theory of mind” (p. 16). Thus, mental state and communication verbs are “the two primary classes of verbs that take sentential complements.”

In a series of tests, she examined this issue by considering wh-extraction from propositional complements in subjects based on their ability to pass false belief tests and whether they were autistic or mentally retarded. “Taken together, these findings suggest that the subjects with mental retardation were more sensitive to the difference between the communication and cognition verbs, and overall performed better on the test questions with cognition verbs” (p. 22). “For both [autistic and mentally retarded] groups performance on the false belief task was significantly correlated with the two standardized language measures (PPVT and Sentence Structure) and with performance on the communication and cognition verbs in the experimental complementation task” (pp. 22-23). Tager-Flusberg summarizes findings of her studies at pp. 30-31. I’d like to consider these a little more closely.

She speculates based on other studies about the causal relationship between knowledge of sentential complements and theory of mind (p. 32): “over the course of the preschool years, knowledge of language (complements) and cognition (representational theory of mind) exhibit mutually influencing developmental constraints, though it is suggested that the structure of complement constructions provides the initial step into representing beliefs in other minds” (p. 32). She claims that autistic participants are likely to be especially dependent on development of the linguistic skills to “bootstrap their way into a representational understanding of mind” (p. 33), though this knowledge may allow them to past experimental tests but leave them “impaired in their everyday social interactions” (p. 33).

Tager-Flusberg sketches out the following model in response to the demand with which she began her article: Theory of mind of the joint attention type appears to be “crucially tied to the onset of communication and language” (p. 34); but language knowledge, perhaps especially the knowledge of propositional complements, however, may be critical for development of a theory of mind including representational understanding of mind (i.e., a knowledge/theory that permits one to understand that others may hold false beliefs).

BNL questions/comments:

  • Study reported on bottom half of 19 uses subjects “matched on age, language (PPVT and Sentence Structure), and IQ” (p. 19). Aren’t matched studies problematic (in other words, could there not be confounds that correlate differently or not at all to the overall groups (autistic and mentally retarded))?
  • I’m not sure I fully understand the results reported at pp. 21-11.
  • Sentence (19) is not ungrammatical on this reading under my intuition. Only if we say, “Mom told Sarah, ‘Don’t touch the candy/gift.’” I have a similar problem with (20) (p. 26).
  • I’m not sure I fully understand the results reported at pp. 28-29, either.

Interesting concepts/terms/oppositions that are defined or explored in this text:

  • Adjunct vs. complement of a verb (p. 17)
  • Cognition verbs (p. 13), including think, know, guess
  • False belief task (p. 11); the Sally-Anne tasks from Baron-Cohen
  • Joint attention (pp. 10-11)
  • Peabody Picture Vocabulary Test (PPVT) and British Picture Vocabulary Test (BPVT). Measures of participants’ lexical knowledge (p. 11)
  • Protodeclarative sharing/informing (p. 5) and joint attention
  • Protoimperative requesting (p. 5)
  • Sentence Structure subtest of the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals (CELF-R), as a test of syntactic knowledge (p. 15)
  • Social engagement (p. 5)
  • Verb opacity vs. transparency (pp. 25-26)
  • Wh-questions and wh-extraction (p. 18)

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