A longitudinal investigation of pragmatic language across contexts in autism and related neurodevelopmental conditions

Gary E. Martin*, Michelle Lee, Klinton O'Neal Bicknell, Adam Goodkind, Nell Maltman, Molly Losh*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1 Scopus citations


Background: Pragmatic language, or the use of language in social contexts, is a critical skill in daily life, supporting social interactions and the development of meaningful social relationships. Pragmatic language is universally impacted in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and pragmatic deficits are also common in other neurodevelopmental conditions, particularly those related to ASD, such as fragile X syndrome (FXS). This study used a multi-method, longitudinal approach to characterize potentially unique pragmatic profiles across different neurodevelopmental disabilities, and across contexts that varied in degree of social demand. The utility of computational linguistic analyses, as an efficient tool for capturing pragmatic abilities, was also explored. Methods: Pragmatic skills of boys with idiopathic ASD (ASD-O, n = 43), FXS with and without ASD (FXS-ASD, n = 57; FXS-O, n = 14), Down syndrome (DS, n = 22), and typical development (TD, n = 24) were compared using variables obtained from a standardized measure, narrative, and semi-naturalistic conversation at up to three time points. Results: Pragmatic language was most significantly impacted among males with ASD-O and FXS-ASD across all three contexts, with more difficulties in the least structured context (conversation), and also some differences based on FXS comorbidity. Patterns of group differences were more nuanced for boys with FXS-O and DS, with context having less of an impact. Clinical groups demonstrated minimal changes in pragmatic skills with age, with some exceptions. Computational language measurement tools showed some utility for measuring pragmatic skills, but were not as successful as traditional methods at capturing differences between clinical groups. Conclusion: Overlap and differences between ASD and other forms of neurodevelopmental disability in general, and between idiopathic and syndromic ASD in particular, have important implications for developing precisely tailored assessment and intervention approaches, consistent with a personalized medicine approach to clinical study and care in ASD.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number1155691
JournalFrontiers in Neurology
StatePublished - 2023


  • Down syndrome
  • autism spectrum disorder
  • fragile X syndrome
  • longitudinal
  • pragmatic language
  • social communication

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Clinical Neurology
  • Neurology


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