Conversational Alignment

Conversational deficits are often the first thing people notice about children with an autism spectrum condition (ASC). Many children with these conditions experience communication difficulties, and in turn people who interact with ASC children often find their conversations awkward. These conversational deficits have been linked to an impaired ability to attribute thoughts and feelings to others, but it is not clear exactly how these impairments might affect their communication, and particularly language production.

Our research is investigating ASC children’s conversational deficits by focusing on conversational alignment: the tendency for partners to imitate each other’s use of language (e.g., word choice and grammar). Such alignment appears to be important for both effective communication and satisfying interactions. Our research examines whether children with ASC show disturbed patterns of alignment, in ways that might explain some of their communication difficulties. We investigate whether ASC children spontaneously align with a conversational partner, and whether they do so in the same ways as typically developing children. By studying typically developing children as well as children with ASC, we will also gain greater insight into the typical development of communication skills.

The power to communicate one’s needs and views effectively is a fundamental requirement of social participation, one which is blocked for many individuals with an autism spectrum condition. We hope that our research will increase understanding of the nature of communication difficulties, with the potential to inform educational and clinical interventions to support more effective communication and to enhance quality of life for persons with autism spectrum conditions.