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A central diagnostic and anecdotal feature of autism is difficulty with social communication. We take the position that communication is a two-way, intersubjective phenomenon—as described by the double empathy problem—and offer up relevance theory (a cognitive account of utterance interpretation) as a means of explaining such communication difficulties. Based on a set of proposed heuristics for successful and rapid interpretation of intended meaning, relevance theory positions communication as contingent on shared—and, importantly, mutually recognized—“relevance.” Given that autistic and non-autistic people may have sometimes markedly different embodied experiences of the world, we argue that what is most salient to each interlocutor may be mismatched. Relevance theory would predict that where this salient information is not (mutually) recognized or adjusted for, mutual understanding may be more effortful to achieve. This paper presents the findings from a small-scale, linguistic ethnographic study of autistic communication featuring eight core autistic participants. Each core autistic participant engaged in three naturalistic conversations around the topic of loneliness with: (1) a familiar, chosen conversation partner; (2) a non-autistic stranger and (3) an autistic stranger. Relevance theory is utilized as a frame for the linguistic analysis of the interactions. Mutual understanding was unexpectedly high across all types of conversation pairings. In conversations involving two autistic participants, flow, rapport and intersubjective attunement were significantly increased and in three instances, autistic interlocutors appeared to experience improvements in their individual communicative competence contrasted with their other conversations. The findings have the potential to guide future thinking about how, in practical terms, communication between autistic and non-autistic people in both personal and public settings might be improved.
published: 29 April 2021
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.616664
Frontiers in Psychology | 1April 2021 | Volume 12 | Article 616664
Edited by:
Christine M. Falter-Wagner,
Ludwig Maximilian University of
Munich, Germany
Reviewed by:
Martine Grice,
University of Cologne, Germany
Irwin Levin,
The University of Iowa, United States
Gemma L. Williams
Specialty section:
This article was submitted to
a section of the journal
Frontiers in Psychology
Received: 12 October 2020
Accepted: 22 March 2021
Published: 29 April 2021
Williams GL, Wharton T and Jagoe C
(2021) Mutual (Mis)understanding:
Reframing Autistic Pragmatic
“Impairments” Using Relevance
Theory. Front. Psychol. 12:616664.
doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2021.616664
Mutual (Mis)understanding:
Reframing Autistic Pragmatic
“Impairments” Using Relevance
Gemma L. Williams 1
*, Tim Wharton 1and Caroline Jagoe 2
1School of Humanities, University of Brighton, Brighton, United Kingdom, 2School of Linguistic, Speech and Communication
Sciences, Trinity College Dublin, University of Dublin, Dublin, Ireland
A central diagnostic and anecdotal feature of autism is difficulty with social
communication. We take the position that communication is a two-way,
intersubjective phenomenon—as described by the double empathy problem—and
offer up relevance theory (a cognitive account of utterance interpretation) as a
means of explaining such communication difficulties. Based on a set of proposed
heuristics for successful and rapid interpretation of intended meaning, relevance
theory positions communication as contingent on shared—and, importantly, mutually
recognized—“relevance.” Given that autistic and non-autistic people may have
sometimes markedly different embodied experiences of the world, we argue that what
is most salient to each interlocutor may be mismatched. Relevance theory would
predict that where this salient information is not (mutually) recognized or adjusted
for, mutual understanding may be more effortful to achieve. This paper presents the
findings from a small-scale, linguistic ethnographic study of autistic communication
featuring eight core autistic participants. Each core autistic participant engaged in
three naturalistic conversations around the topic of loneliness with: (1) a familiar,
chosen conversation partner; (2) a non-autistic stranger and (3) an autistic stranger.
Relevance theory is utilized as a frame for the linguistic analysis of the interactions.
Mutual understanding was unexpectedly high across all types of conversation pairings.
In conversations involving two autistic participants, flow, rapport and intersubjective
attunement were significantly increased and in three instances, autistic interlocutors
appeared to experience improvements in their individual communicative competence
contrasted with their other conversations. The findings have the potential to guide future
thinking about how, in practical terms, communication between autistic and non-autistic
people in both personal and public settings might be improved.
Keywords: autism, intersubjectivity, relevance theory, communication, double empathy problem
Williams et al. Mutual (Mis)understanding: Reframing Pragmatic “Impairments”
Issues around autistic communication were identified as a top
priority for autism research by stakeholders in an independent
James Lind Alliance Priority Setting Partnership priority-setting
report (Cusack and Sterry, 2016, p. 6). Community priority-
setting is an important means of ensuring that research aligns
with the needs of stakeholders: something that is essential if
we want outcomes to be genuinely meaningful (Milton and
Bracher, 2013; Chown et al., 2017). Yet, while language and
communication in autism is clearly a key area for research, it
remains something of a “blind spot” (De Jaegher, 2013, p. 14;
Morrison et al., 2019b): this study addresses this issue. Using a
small corpus of transcribed, naturalistic conversations involving
eight core autistic adult participants across three different
conversation conditions, it explores how implicit expectations
of shared relevance contribute to breakdowns in understanding
between autistic and non-autistic interlocutors1.
The past three decades have seen interest in autism as a field
of research boom [Interagency Autism Coordinating Committee
(IACC), 2013; Pellicano, 2014], coinciding with a dramatic
shift in terms of how autism is defined (Happé and Frith,
2020). Medically, autism is classified as a neurodevelopmental
disorder, hanging on a set of observed and reported behavioral
characteristics. These characteristics, largely based on Wing
and Gould’s “Triad of Impairments” (Wing and Gould,
1979), are described as impairments in social interaction, in
(social) imagination (i.e., demonstrating restricted interests
and repeated or stereotyped behaviors) and in communication
(see DSM-5 criteria, American Psychiatric Association, 2013).
Communication, for these diagnostic purposes, “refers to the
full range of both verbal/linguistic and non-verbal (including
gesture and intonation) means for interacting with others”
(Tager-Flusberg, 1999, p. 325).
Autism is also now commonly conceptualized as a form of
neurodivergence i.e., “a specific neurological state” (Beardon,
2017, p. 13) or “disposition” (Milton, 2014) that is “different,
not less” (Fletcher-Watson and Happé, 2019, p. 23). The study
reported on below adopts this perspective. While the shifting
parameters and difficulty in identifying a specific biological cause
have led to consternation about the validity of the construct
that is autism (e.g., Cushing, 2013; Verhoeff, 2013; Timimi and
McCabe, 2016), others have argued that the term is nonetheless
useful for those whose lived experiences it describes (e.g., Milton,
in Milton and Timimi, 2016; Beardon, 2017; Woods et al., 2018;
Chapman, 2020).
Based on original findings by Baron-Cohen et al. (1985) and
numerous replication studies, autism research has long been
1In accordance with the preferences expressed by autistic self-advocates and their
allies (see Kenny et al., 2016; Botha et al., 2021), this paper uses “identity-first
language” (i.e., autistic woman) rather than person-first language (i.e., a woman
with autism). This choice does not imply a negative judgement toward individuals
with autism referring to themselves as such, if this is their wish.
characterized by the belief that impaired theory of mind is
a defining trait. However, in addition to the recent evidence
demonstrating non-autistic people’s inability to accurately
impute the mental states of autistic people (see below section
Autistic Communication and the “Double Empathy Problem”),
the idea that non-autistic children and adults consistently
perform at ceiling level in ToM tasks has also now been
challenged (e.g., see Samson and Apperly, 2010; Warnell and
Redcay, 2019). Furthermore, Peterson and Wellman (2019)
discovered that autistic children follow a complete, but atypical
sequence of ToM stage progression. At the sequential stage
when typically developing children are acquiring the ability to
represent false beliefs, autistic children are instead developing the
ability to understand that underlying emotions can be hidden. It
is possible that the over-reliance on false belief test measures in
early childhood has skewed our appreciation for the potential of
ToM development in autism.
Autistic Communication and the “Double Empathy
Over the past two decades, research into autistic sociality
and communication has begun to turn its gaze toward
intersubjectivity. Taking a phenomenological perspective,
intersubjectivity acknowledges that as embodied social agents we
share in some degree of a “co-conception or co-orientation to
the world” (Schegloff, 1992, p. 1296). Intersubjectivity functions
as a counter to a solipsistic view whereby the individual mind
has primacy and emphasizes the inter-relational aspect of selves
and selfhood.
Communication, viewed intersubjectively, does not occur
in a void, nor solely in the mind of one individual: it
is a social and interactive phenomenon. In order to reflect
this, and in opposition to traditional explanations of autism
that have situated the mind-reading “failures” assumed central
to pragmatic breakdown in the minds/brains of the autistic
individuals, Milton (2012) proposes the DEP. This holds that
cross-dispositional communication (i.e., between two speakers of
different neurotypes) is troubled by “a disjuncture in reciprocity
between two differently disposed social actors” (Milton, 2012,
p. 884), “who hold different norms and expectations of
each other” (Milton et al., 2018, p. 1). Misunderstanding
or lack of understanding is not a consequence of autistic
“impairment” but a mutual failure in reaching consensus through
bidirectional empathy.
Recent empirical autism research, situated largely in the
social sciences, has begun to provide evidence in support of
the DEP and illuminate the difficulties non-autistic people also
experience in understanding autistic people: such as difficulty
in inferring autistic affective and mental states (Brewer et al.,
2016; Edey et al., 2016; Sheppard et al., 2016; Heasman and
Gillespie, 2017; Hubbard et al., 2017) and a tendency toward
negative thin slice judgements about autistic people (Sasson et al.,
2017; Morrison et al., 2019a). Research has also highlighted how
autistic people can demonstrate highly successful and nuanced
socio-communicative abilities when among others of a similar
neurotype (Crompton et al., 2019a,b; Heasman and Gillespie,
2019; Morrison et al., 2019b).
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Williams et al. Mutual (Mis)understanding: Reframing Pragmatic “Impairments”
Linguistic ethnographic research (such as that by Ochs
and Solomon, 2010; Sirota, 2010; Sterponi and Fasulo, 2010)
as well some other work on autistic communication (e.g.,
Bogdashina, 2005; Chown, 2012; De Jaegher, 2013, 2020; Sterponi
and de Kirby, 2016; Di Paolo et al., 2018), has led the way
in taking an intersubjective approach to autism and autistic
language use. Autistic participants are approached as situated,
interactive agents within their familiar worlds, and from “a
phenomenological, rather than a biomedical, point of view”
(Solomon and Bagatell, 2010, p. 2).
Linguistic analyses that begin with the premise of asking “what
is this utterance doing?,” instead of automatically problematizing
it, can uncover previously overlooked competences. Sterponi and
de Kirby (2016) demonstrate that some of the key characteristics
of so-called “impaired” autistic language—pronoun atypicality,
echolalia and pragmatically atypical utterances—are revealed
to have potentially alternative explanations, such as echolalia
functioning as a form of perspective-taking. While these studies
explore new territory in the analysis of autistic language
use, many involve child-adult dyads which are necessarily
asymmetric. The present study aims to apply this same approach
to an analysis of adult autistic language use.
Monotropism (Murray et al., 2005; Murray, 2018, 2020) is a
compelling interest-based account of autism, based within a
dynamic, ecological, model of minds. However, it has received
little mainstream attention since its conception 15 years ago.
Originally proposed by three autistic scholars, the theory begins
from the position that the mind is, essentially, an interest
system—a starting place not dissimilar to that of the weak central
coherence theory—and that “atypical strategies for the allocation
of attention” (Murray et al., 2005, p. 139) are the central cause of
the various autistic social and behavioral manifestations. Murray
et al. propose that the degree or breadth of attention allocation
in humans is “normally distributed” and (largely) “genetically
determined” (Murray et al., 2005, p. 140), with some people
possessing a greater tendency toward multiply focused attention
(polytropism), and others a tendency toward more narrowly
focused attention (monotropism). Those identified or identifying
as autistic will find themselves at the far end of this distribution
with a highly narrow “attention tunnel.” Where polytropic
minds comfortably entertain many simultaneous interests, each
moderately aroused, the monotropic mind will maintain only
very few simultaneous interests, with each one highly aroused
and intensely focused upon.
The monotropic account offers a unified explanation for the
many different features associated with autism. The restricted
and repetitive behaviors and interests (see DSM-5 criteria,
American Psychiatric Association, 2013) can be explained by
attention firing into “monotropic superdrive” (Murray et al.,
2005, p. 143) and entraining itself onto one self-pleasing task
or topic. Crucially, social and communicative difficulties may
come about as a consequence of a difficulty in processing, at
speed, information from a variety of simultaneous channels
(audio, visual, socio-cultural encyclopedic knowledge, etc. . . ); a
skill better suited to polytropic individuals with less narrowly
and intensely focused attention. Similarly, stimuli outside of
the monotropic attention tunnel may carry reduced salience,
a potential difficulty when communication is considered in
relevance theoretic terms.
Relevance Theory and Mutual
Building on Grice’s (1975) inferential model of communication,
relevance theory (Sperber and Wilson, 1986, 1995) regards
communication as involving more than the simple encoding
and decoding of a linguistically encoded meaning. Intended
meanings are retrieved via a context-bound search for optimal
relevance, where “relevance” is defined as a balance between the
greatest number of communicative effects achieved for the lowest
amount of processing effort. The approach is underpinned by
two principles. The Cognitive Principle of Relevance holds that
the search for relevance is a central goal of human cognition:
this is a claim that is backed up by work in cognitive science2.
The Communicative Principle of Relevance takes it that because
human cognition is geared to the search for relevance, speakers
ensure that their utterances come with a presumption of their
own optimal relevance. Hearers can therefore safely assume that
the utterance is relevant enough to merit the effort required to
process it. In this way, speakers, therefore, can ensure hearers will
pay attention to them.
This mutual calibration of shared cognitive space is
central to relevance theory’s notion of ostensive-inferential
communication. All facts and assumptions both actually and
potentially available to any individual as a result of interaction
between their physical environment and their cognitive abilities
are considered “manifest” to them (Sperber and Wilson, 1986,
1995). The set of assumptions that is manifest to an individual
at any given time constitutes their “cognitive environment,” and
two people who share assumptions are said to share a cognitive
environment. Finally, any shared cognitive environment in
which it is manifest which people share it is described as a
“mutual cognitive environment.” As Sperber and Wilson put
it (1986; 1995, p. 42): “[I]n a mutual cognitive environment,
every manifest assumption is. . . mutually manifest.” Mutual
manifestness is the basis from which judgements relating to the
optimal relevance of an utterance are formed.
For communication to work, meta-representational abilities
that enable a speaker or listener to infer what their interlocutor
has in mind, and what their interlocutor should reasonably
believe them they have in mind, are essential. For this
reason, relevance theory has largely been used to explain the
cognitive mechanisms of (both successful and unsuccessful)
utterance interpretation in typically-developed communicators
with typical ToM abilities. Of the few studies that have applied a
relevance theoretic lens to autistic communication (Happé, 1991,
1993, 1995; Leinonen and Kerbel, 1999; Papp, 2006; Loukusa
et al., 2007; Leinonen and Ryder, 2008; Wearing, 2010), all have
approached the matter from the perspective that autistic people
2That our minds must be economical with what we notice in this vastly
information-rich world is now fairly uncontentious. See, e.g., Gigerenzer and Todd
(1999) or Clark (2013).
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Williams et al. Mutual (Mis)understanding: Reframing Pragmatic “Impairments”
have impaired ToM abilities3. Autistic participants have been
used as case studies to validate relevance theory’s claims on the
mechanisms of utterance interpretation.
We suggest that because of their divergent sensory and
perceptual experiences (Bogdashina, 2010; De Jaegher, 2013;
Beardon, 2017), and markedly different patterns of attention
(Murray et al., 2005), it is plausible that autistic people attribute
relevance in significantly different ways to non-autistic people.
What is and is not relevant, which facts and assumptions are
manifest at any given time, and the way in which representations
are organized and accessible, may be more markedly different
than those of a non-autistic interlocutor, or indeed, a different
autistic interlocutor. The degree of cognitive effort required
to generate certain cognitive effects will therefore also be
different. We argue that both autistic and non-autistic speakers
communicate according to the principles of relevance theory.
We suggest that it is where assumptions of mutual manifestness
are erroneously made (by either or both parties), that mutual
understanding will break down. In this way we resituate the
responsibility of breakdowns in understanding on the shoulders
of all parties involved, as relevance theory has always intended.
This position accords with theories that posit that humans are
most successful at inferring the mental and affective states of
those others who are most cognitively similar to themselves, and
that interactions between autistic and non-autistic people are
prime examples of where such conditions are infelicitous (De
Jaegher, 2013, 2020; Bolis et al., 2017; Fein, 2018; Chapman, 2019;
Conway et al., 2019a,b).
This study took the form of a small-scale linguistic-ethnographic
case-study featuring eight core autistic participants. The
primary aim of this study was to investigate the strength of
the proposal that the relevance theoretic notion of mutual
manifestness might serve to support the DEP-based theory of
mutual misunderstanding in cross-dispositional communication,
based on an expectation that in such circumstances both
interlocutors may be inclined to make faulty assumptions of
mutual manifestness.
Participant Selection and Design
Eight core autistic participants were recruited through Assert, a
local autism support charity acting as gatekeeper, and invited to
take part in three naturalistic conversations of roughly 10 min
each. Assert is a member led organization, founded in 2002,
that supports autistic people traditionally identified as being
“high functioning,” or having Asperger’s Syndrome, along with
their family members, partners or carers. The conversations were
focused around the loose topic of loneliness. We wanted to
strike the balance between providing some form of framework
for the conversations, not unduly directing or influencing
their structure, and maintaining a degree of parity across the
conversation conditions.
3See Leinonen and Ryder (2008) for detailed review.
Since there is a “a lost generation of people who were
previously excluded from a diagnosis” (Lai and Baron-Cohen,
2015, p. 1013), and achieving a diagnosis of autism in adulthood
is not easy (Taylor and Marrable, 2011), we decided that
stipulating a formal autism diagnosis seemed unnecessarily
limiting. Instead, autistic participants were asked about their
autism diagnosis at recruitment and again within their consent
forms. All autistic participants reported a diagnosis of either
“autism level 1,” “autism spectrum condition,” or “Asperger’s
syndrome:” the various terminology reflecting the differing times
at which they received their diagnoses
The sampling in this study was purposeful (Patton, 1999;
Palinkas et al., 2015); core autistic participants were selected
on account of their being autistic adults who used language
as their primary mode of communication as well as their
availability and willingness to engage with the research. Within
these parameters, we chose to not impose or collect any
further demographic stipulations, so as to allow for as much
variability as possible. Finding a group of “typical” autistic
people is nigh impossible, given the characteristic heterogeneity
of autism (e.g., see Beardon, 2017; Fletcher-Watson and Happé,
Non-autistic participants were asked both at recruitment
and within their consent form to confirm that they did not
have a history of speech and language difficulties, autism or
learning difficulties. Non-familiar stranger participants had been
invited to take part in a Linguistics PhD research project
looking at communication across pairs of strangers, with no
mention made at any stage that their interlocutors would
be autistic. The familiar, chosen conversation partners were
not asked about an autism diagnosis although in all but
two cases they identified themselves as non-autistic, with one
chosen partner (Participant code X6) not mentioning it either
way, and another (Participant code X3) identifying herself as
autistic. The only important criterion for the chosen, familiar
participants was the strength of familiarity they had with the core
autistic participants.
Making the Experience Meaningful
In order to obtain naturalistic data, it was important to generate
and facilitate conversations that were not in any way contrived.
In addition, in making the data-collecting activity meaningful
in its own right, the research project could become a mutually
beneficial endeavor to both us as researchers and to the
participants: a cornerstone of participatory and community-
based research (Milton and Bracher, 2013; Chown et al., 2017;
Elson et al., 2018; Fletcher-Watson et al., 2019).
Loneliness is a “universal affliction” (McGraw, 1995, p. 43)
that can not only cause significant distress but also functions
as a risk factor for various health problems and increased
mortality rates (Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010; Valtorta et al., 2016).
Autistic people are especially prone to loneliness and social
isolation (National Autistic Society, 2018), further associated
with increased depression and anxiety (Mazurek, 2014) and self-
harm (Hedley et al., 2018). Given that was potentially relevant to
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Williams et al. Mutual (Mis)understanding: Reframing Pragmatic “Impairments”
the participants, we chose loneliness in Brighton and Hove as the
central focus of the conversations (see Williams, 2020)4.
Five sessions were scheduled at different times over 3 days
in order to make the “Talking Together” project accessible to
as many people as possible. In each session, a series of five
conversations took place; (1) a core autistic participant (A) with
their chosen partner (X); (2) a further A with their chosen X;
(3) both core As together; (4) the first A with an unfamiliar,
non-autistic participant (B); and (5) the second A with a B
participant. The conversations were scheduled for every 20 min,
meaning that each core A participant only had one 20-min
wait between conversations. Conversations took place in a small
private meeting room at the Assert premises in the center of
Brighton, just along from the communal waiting room where
participants and their familiar partners could wait, talk, rest and
have refreshments.
4A secondary thematic analysis addressing the qualitative loneliness content—
beyond the scope of this primary study—was undertaken and reported on in to
ensure that this endeavor was indeed meaningful.
For each of the three conversation pairings, a (different) set
of two prompt questions (see Supplementary Material) were
provided in order to give the participants somewhere to begin,
although it was explained that the questions were just there as
a guide. Prompts were designed to elicit personal experiences
of loneliness, thoughts about loneliness in Brighton and Hove
more specifically and to invite ideas around how address those
problems within the city.
Conversations were digitally recorded and professionally
transcribed according to the transcription conventions adopted
for use in Conversation Analysis (originally developed by
Jefferson, 1984, see Supplementary Material) to include
information pertaining to pauses, word stress, and intonation
etc., whilst remaining readable.
Data Analysis
Relevance theory is not a methodology but a cognitive theory
of utterance interpretation. There is, however, precedent for
the application of a relevance theoretic lens to the analysis
of conversational data (e.g., Leinonen and Kerbel, 1999; Jagoe,
2012, 2015; Jagoe and Smith, 2016; Jagoe and Wharton, 2021).
Jagoe (2015), for example, analyzed the delusional talk of
Core autistic participant Conversation condition/configuration Interlocutor
Code Demographic details Code Demographic details
Suite 1 A1 Autistic male with additional learning
difficulties, in his 50s
*Cross-dispositional (familiar) X1 Male work colleague
*Cross-dispositional (unfamiliar) B1 Non-autistic stranger, male, early 20s
*Matched-dispositional (unfamiliar) A2 Autistic female, mid 30s–mid 40s
A2 Autistic female, in her mid 30s–mid
Cross dispositional (familiar) X2 Male friend of A2
Cross-dispositional (unfamiliar) B1 Non-autistic stranger, early 20s
Suite 2 A3 Autistic female, French-English
bilingual, in her 50s
*Matched-dispositional (familiar) X3 Autistic female friend of A3’s, in her 50s
Cross-dispositional (unfamiliar) B2 Female non-autistic stranger, early 20s
*Matched-dispositional (unfamiliar) A4 Autistic male, in his 50s
A4 Autistic male, in his 50s *Cross dispositional (familiar) X4 A4’s non-autistic wife, 50s
*Cross-dispositional (unfamiliar) B3 Female non-autistic stranger, mid 20s
Suite 3 A5 Autistic female, in her mid 30s40s Cross dispositional (familiar) X5 Female Assert staff member, 30s
*Cross-dispositional (unfamiliar) B4 Female non-autistic stranger, 30s
*Matched-dispositional (unfamiliar) A6 Autistic female, in her 30s
A6 Autistic female, in her 30s *Cross dispositional (familiar) X6 Female friend of A6
*Cross-dispositional (unfamiliar) B4 Female non-autistic stranger, 30s
Suite 4 A7 Autistic female, in her early-mid 20s *Cross dispositional (familiar) X7 Older sister of A7, late 20s/early 30s
Cross dispositional (unfamiliar) B5 Female non-autistic stranger, late 40s
*Matched-dispositional (unfamiliar) A8 Autistic male, in his 40s
A8 Autistic male, in his 40s *Cross dispositional (familiar) X8 Female non-autistic housemate and
friend of A8
*Cross-dispositional (unfamiliar) B6 Male non-autistic stranger, early 20s
*Extracts from these conversations are used as illustrative extracts for the purposes of this paper.
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Williams et al. Mutual (Mis)understanding: Reframing Pragmatic “Impairments”
seven individuals with schizophrenia engaged in conversation
with the researcher (a speech and language therapist) from
a relevance theoretic perspective5. Relevance theory provided
the theoretical descriptive basis for human communication,
on which the analysis was built. Furthermore, it served there
as the explanatory and theoretical framework underpinning
interpretation of the data, with the notion of mutual manifestness
(or the lack thereof) functioning “as a useful construct with which
to understand the to-and-fro of the meaning negotiation process”
(Jagoe, 2015, p. 66). In Leinonen and Kerbel’s (1999) relevance
theoretic analysis of the talk-in-interaction of three children with
pragmatic impairments, transcripts were scanned for “instances
of communicative “oddness,” created either by the children or
the adults” (Leinonen and Kerbel, 1999, p. 372). Approaching the
analysis of the data from the theoretical basis of relevance theory,
combined with an open-minded, inquisitive attitude and asking
“why that, now?” (Sterponi and de Kirby, 2016, p. 398) should,
in principle, afford a grounded, reliable yet sensitive reading of
the data.
Data Analytic Method
The study presented in this paper uses qualitative methods,
situated in an interpretative paradigm. Qualitative coding and
analysis is an iterative, reflexive process (Braun and Clarke,
2006, 2020; Tracy, 2010) that develops over an extended
period of time. According to Braun and Clarke (2020, p. 6,
7), such inductive and reflexive approaches “fully embrace
qualitative research values and the subjective skills the researcher
brings to the process.” In our case, the analysis took place
over a period of months in conversation between the three
authors. The primary analysis was undertaken by the lead
author (GW—whose doctoral research this research represented)
with ongoing supervision, discussion and reviewing of coding,
extract selection and analysis provided by the two further co-
authors. This triangulation of analytic perspectives, we feel, was
further strengthened by our combined diversity of dispositions
(two of us are non-autistic and one of us is autistic). The
analysts were not blinded as to the autistic “status” of the
interlocutors as this would not have aligned with our linguistic
ethnographic approach.
In the initial stage of the analysis, the transcripts were
read through several times each in order to become familiar
with the form and content of the conversations and the
individual interlocutors. These first readings were undertaken
within the Nvivo data analysis programme (QSR International
Pty Ltd, 2020): software designed to assist in the management of
qualitative datasets. Some initial codes were made representing
emergent themes relating to the loneliness qualitative content,
and stored for the planned secondary analysis to be completed
later. In those cases where conversational characteristics were
already becoming apparent, these were recorded as notes in the
research log.
5N.B. There is certainly no intention to compare autism with schizophrenia, but in
terms of communication there are potential parallels in the absence or reduction
of mutual manifestness and the consequences that faulty assumptions around this,
on the part of both interlocutors, may have.
In the second phase of readings, now focused on the primary
research aim, printed transcripts were read through, searching
specifically for moments of communication breakdown with the
view to analyze them through the lens of mutual manifestness.
However, it became quickly evident that there were, in fact,
very few instances of communication breakdown through the
whole 240 min of transcribed conversational data. If anything,
these conversations were consistently characterized by sustained
mutual understanding. Further discussion of this surprising
finding is provided in section Discussion.
The plan was revised to focus instead on the qualitative
differences across the different conversational conditions
that had become apparent during the note-taking stage in
the first readings. Fresh readings were undertaken of the
transcripts, this time adopting a “first person perspective” in
order or to “bracket out the researcher’s own perspectives and
assumptions” (Watts, 2014, p. 4). Detailed notes were made
on each conversation, capturing observations, impressions,
qualities, and patterns. Coding schemes were developed
iteratively, guided by the emergent patterns in the data (see
Supplementary Material). The codes were then organized
into four inductively-derived “motifs” (N.B not “themes” as
these usually refer to qualitative thematic content): “flow,
“tuning in,” “running along the edges of meaning,and
“mutual manifestness.
The flow motif relates to instances where conversational
progressivity was notably fluid or stilted, as marked by
characteristics such as “high-quality turn-taking, short response
latencies, and few interruptions” (Koudenburg et al., 2017,
p. 51); or pauses (within turns), gaps (between turns) and lapses
(between sequences), interruptions and long (monologic) turns.
The tuning-in motif brings together characteristics of the
conversational form and non-propositional content that indicate
that interlocutors are “on the same wavelength” (Koudenburg
et al., 2017, p. 53). Features of coordination, such as mirroring
the other’s speech (either by echoing specific words or phrases or
offering parallel anecdotes), and finishing the other’s sentences
combine with evidence of rapport and the presence of shared
jokes and humor (a form of affective coordination: Nelson
et al., 2016) to create a sense of dyadic synchrony, or “closely
aligned intersubjectivity” (Heasman and Gillespie, 2019, p. 916)
that Koudenburg et al. (2017) have termed “emergent we-ness”
or “solidarity.”
The running along the edges of meaning motif borrows its
title from an observation made by Sterponi and Fasulo (2010)
in their linguistic ethnographic analysis of a young autistic boy
(“Aaron”) and his mother engaging in verbal play together.
Rather than ignoring Aaron’s seemingly meaningless utterance
playing with the sound of the word “bug,” she joins him, echoing
his utterances until the sequence develops into a joyful, rhymical
duet. “Language [use] is set free and allowed to run along the very
edges of meaning” (Sterponi and Fasulo, 2010, p. 135).
There were not many instances of linguistic freestyling,
but there were moments of left-field, non-tangential topic
development and abrupt topic changes—which echoed
the low demand for coherence noted in autistic group
interactions by Heasman and Gillespie’s (2019)—as well as
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non-words and word play such onomatopoeia etc. These
features all seemed to have in common something of the
diverging from ordinary, expected discourse and as such
were grouped together under the running along the edges of
meaning motif.
The smaller mutual manifestness motif relates to instances
where its presence or absence was clear.
For the final stage of the analysis, the transcripts were
analyzed once more: this time from a “third person perspective”
(i.e., applying “the analyst’s thoroughgoing knowledge of a
relevant theoretical and/or substantive literature,Watts, 2014,
p. 4). From this stance, extracts that might support, qualify,
question or contradict existing literature and the hypotheses
driving this study were carefully, purposefully selected and are
included below.
Ethical Approval
This study was granted ethical approval by the Tier II Arts
and Humanities Ethics Panel at the University of Brighton.
All participants were provided with information sheets at
recruitment and again on the day of the research and all gave their
written, informed consent in accordance with the Declaration
of Helsinki. Information sheets were designed with accessibility
for autistic people in mind, drawing on GW’s personal autistic
insights and advice given in the Participatory Autism Research
Starter Pack (Pellicano et al., 2017).
The conversations contained very few instances of non-
understanding. However, what was evident, were discernible
qualitative differences between those conversations held by
cross-dispositional pairs (i.e., A +X; A +B) and those by
the exclusively autistic dyads (i.e., A +A). The codes and
resulting motifs were developed as a means of trying to capture
this difference.
Conversations are presented below in four suites of five (e.g.,
Suite One includes: A1 +X1 — familiar cross-dispositional
condition; A1 +B1 — unfamiliar cross-dispositional condition;
A1 +A2 — unfamiliar matched-dispositional condition; A2
+X2 — familiar cross dispositional condition; A2 +B1 —
unfamiliar cross-dispositional), so as to allow closer comparison
between the three conversations of each core “A” participant.
Within each suite, extracts are presented where they are relevant
to the primary motifs in the following order: (1) flow; (2)
tuning-in; and (3) running along the edges of meaning. The
first and second motifs are closely related to one another
and so some extracts may, at times, represent both. For that
reason, flow and tuning in are considered together for each
suite. For some suites there may not be extracts representing
all three motifs. Extracts belonging to the final, smaller motif
of “mutual manifestness” are woven throughout each suite
where appropriate.
Transcripts were organized so that the left column represents
the speech of the core autistic participant (A) and the right
column their interlocutor (X, B, or another A). Where two
As are talking, the As are presented in numerical order (e.g.,
in Conversation 3, A1 is to the left and A2 is to the right).
For readers educated in Western traditions, top-to-bottom and
left-to-right biases play a part in how the visually recorded
spoken word is engaged with (Ochs, 1979). We wanted to center
the voice of the voices of the core autistic participants, even
if implicitly.
Suite One
Suite One Flow and Tuning in
Monologic turns were common in this first suite of
conversations. In the cross-dispositional conversation
between A1 and X1, A1 appears to stumble over
constructing his turns. His speech is peppered with
fillers, pauses, stuttered words, and rephrases which
means that it takes him extra time to arrive at his
intended points.
X1, a work colleague of A1’s who agreed to come along and
participate, is familiar with A1 and appears patient with these
long, sometimes labored turns, creating a conversation where A1
has room to speak, but one that has the feel of being lopsided.
In the cross-dispositional conversation between A2 and her
familiar interlocutor, X2, there appears to be a greater sense
of balance in terms of turn-taking and contributions, but
the turns are still often very long (one turn, for example,
lasts 45 lines/1 min and 22 s). Again, there are a lot of
pauses and gaps, particularly in the first few minutes, and
episodes of parallel dialogues where both acknowledge the
other’s contributions but continue with their own separate topic
when the turn passes back to them. Despite A2 introducing
X2 as her friend, and them appearing to have a good
understanding of each other’s day-to-day, the dialogue comes
across as rather staid. The conversation remains on a theoretical,
intellectual level about the nature and causes of loneliness
with not one moment of laughter, enthusiasm, or signal of
affect throughout.
In contrast to this is the matched-dispositional conversation,
where A1 and A2 meet. Immediately, the conversation has a sense
of flow, which continues throughout the interaction. Within
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moments of beginning their conversation together, A2 correctly
predicts what A1 is aiming for, and helps him get there:
Rather than the parallel dialogues of the previous conversation,
this one is characterized by a coherent progression of
adjacent turns. Where both A1 and A2—most likely for
different reasons—had tended toward long turns across the
cross-dispositional conversations (familiar and unfamiliar
conditions), here they fall into a fluid rhythm of shorter,
responsive turn-taking.
Genuine rapport appears to build too, demonstrated by the
mirroring of anecdotes and enthusiastic mutual agreement. In
the familiar cross-dispositional condition, A2 sat back when
her interlocutor (X2) spoke, giving only minimal backchannel
cues (“mmm;” “yeah”). Here she seems more engaged, making
contributions that could be understood as enthusiastic, further
indicating rapport:
The shared enthusiasm crescendos around lines 52–101, where
they discover they both have dogs. A1’s dog is clearly a significant
and supportive character in A1’s life: he is mentioned in all
three of his recorded conversations and also during informal
discussions in the waiting room. In this matched-dispositional
conversation, mention of the dog appears to spark a long
sequence full of laughter, emphatic agreement (e.g., “Me too”-
line 56; “YEAH tha-tha-that’s why that’s exactly what I do”—lines
69–70), shared parallel anecdotes and echoic mirroring of the
phrase “love. . . to bits:”
The same topic is seemingly met with limited engagement in
both of the cross-dispositional interactions. In A1’s interaction
with his familiar conversation partner the reference to his dog
is something of a non-event, although it could be that the dog
is already known to his interlocutor (X1) and its mention not
especially newsworthy. However, when his pet is introduced to
B1—a (non-autistic) stranger to A1—there also appears to be a
distinct lack of engagement:
The focus on the topic of his pet could be framed as evidence of
one of the diagnostic features of autism: the presence of “highly
restricted, fixated interests” (DSM-5, American Psychiatric
Association, 2013). Monotropism theorists, however, have long
reframed these intense absorptions—sometimes manifesting as
encyclopedic knowledge of a specific subject—as highly aroused
interests within a monotropic attention tunnel rather than a
cognitive deficit (Murray et al., 2005). In an ethnographic study
exploring social interactions at an autistic-separate workplace
in Sweden, Rosqvist (2019) identified a mode of engagement
she termed “interest-based sociality” that occurred in autistic-
only environments:
[I]interest-based sociality should here be seen as intrinsic group
sociality, as a motivator and a driving force for social interaction
within a group and a sense of belonging within a community. It
includes the importance of having interest-based exchanges with
one another, and having common interests and communication
based on genuine interest in the topic being discussed. (Rosqvist,
2019, p. 176)
The exchange about his dog in the matched-dispositional
condition seems to fit this description. A1 offers up a special
interest that is of great importance to him and it is both
recognized and reciprocated by A2 who is also passionate about
her own dog. It would be tempting to assume some linear
correlation between the engaging in a passage of autistically-
satisfying interest-based sociality and the ensuing high affect and
flow that characterize this conversation. However, the synchrony
was already occurring before this episode: a degree of tuning-in
already appeared to be taking place.
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Suite Two
Suite Two Flow and Tuning in
Suite Two continues with the presence of heavily monologic
turns. The familiar matched-dispositional6conversation between
A3 and her chosen conversation partner X3 (an autistic friend
made through Assert), for example, has an opening turn
of 37 lines (lasting 1 min and 8 s), peppered only by X3’s
minimal backchanneling (“mmm, hm mm”). While A3 does
tend to dominate the conversational flow (in all three of her
conversations), X3 also inclines toward longer turns. At the end
of A3’s long opening sequence, having invited a response from X3
(“I don’t know about you?”), X3 then goes on to hold the floor for
a 60-line extended sequence (lasting 1 min 34 s) with just minimal
backchanneling from A3.
“Monologues” are one of the examples given under the
diagnostic criteria relating to a “failure of normal back and
forth conversation” in the DSM-5 (American Psychiatric
Association, 2013). While such one-sided verbosity may
seem at odds with maintaining conversational flow, in this
conversation at least, it does not appear to cause significant
disruption. This may because, as McDonnell and Milton
(2014, p. 44) have asserted, autistic people “will often
feel more in their flow when engaged in monologs or
serial monolog style conversations. . . a practice sometimes
engaged in when people on the autism spectrum talk to
one another.”
Despite the length of each speaker’s sequences, the
other remains engaged throughout with a sense of
rapport, demonstrated by lots of backchannelling, and
mutual, enthusiastic agreement. During a passage where
X3 is describing how she has found the city much
easier to navigate during moments when traffic has
been stopped, there is a moment of mirroring of the
word “kindness.”
It could be the case that A3 has heard “a kind [of]” (line 56) and
wrongly anticipated “kindness” as the coming word. However,
while this was not the original word that X3 was working toward,
it does seem that A3 has correctly understood the sentiment
which is then mirrored back by X3.
The intersubjective synchrony that they appear to share,
despite the (on first glance) stiltedness caused by the long turn-
taking, is perhaps demonstrated most beautifully at the end of the
6This conversational condition was unique to A3 as her chosen interlocutor
happened to be autistic, unlike the chosen partners of the other core participants.
conversation where they talk about the welcoming, sanctuary-like
quality of the café that X3 frequents:
In lines 342–344 neither specifies what it is about that café that
is of significance or value, or how this somehow functions as a
supportive feature toward resilience against loneliness: but they
both appear to “get” it. In this moment, whatever that quality of
the café might be: it is mutually manifest to both A3 and X3. It is
because of this that neither needs to spell it out.
These two speakers appear to be closely attuned.
Their monologic turns do not disrupt the flow, perhaps
because of the adjacency: both speakers are inclined to
take them. The conversation has its own rhythm, its own
flow and a sense of symmetry. Progressivity, here, is not
rushed; each speaker allows the other to go on whilst
maintaining the thread. There is a feeling of natural,
structural coordination which may supports the building
of “we-ness.”
The conversation between A4 and his non-autistic wife,
X4 (familiar cross-dispositional condition), presents a very
different conversational dynamic. This conversation, for the
most part, involves fairly equal, short, and fluid turns. Yet
despite this, attunement, rapport, and mutual understanding
appear to be low throughout. Unique to this conversation is
the proliferation of questions posed to check that they have
been understood by, and have properly understood, the other
(e.g., “Is that right? Is that what you’re saying?”; “Are you
talking about. . . ”; “. . . does that make sense?”). This type of
checking-in is often indicative of interlocutors who to wish
signal investment in mutual understanding, and demonstrate
care and attentiveness. However, combined with moments
where A4’s attempts at humor seem to fall flat, it might be
interpreted as representing two individuals who are struggling
to connect. Instead, our interpretation is that it is reflective
of the fact that these interlocutors have a long personal
history together and have perhaps learnt that in order to
understand one another, extra effort must be made. They
may know that they often don’t understand each other at the
first pass and are keen to monitor mutual understanding as
conversation progresses.
These speakers, even in these short 10 min of dialogue,
describe very different lifeworlds. A4 prefers to spend time
by himself, hates parties and struggles to understand what
loneliness would feel like. X4 takes pleasure from socializing, likes
participating in organized groups and clubs and comes across
as very in tune with her own feelings. While it may be the
case that they have a lot of shared life experience together, their
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subjective experiences of the world—their dispositions—sound
very different.
Their apparent difficulty in achieving mutual understanding
is epitomized in the extract below where they struggle to
understand what the other means, particularly around the
definition of “loneliness.” A4 has repeatedly been saying that
he doesn’t “know what the word loneliness means” or what
it “feels like”7. X4 seems to believe A4 just doesn’t experience
it as he doesn’t need the company of others. From line 222
they fall into trying to define the concept of loneliness. X4
attempts to tell an anecdote describing a moment in which
she felt lonely. A4 argues that what she is describing isn’t
“loneliness.” Suddenly the pace changes and where there was
a balanced, measured exchange there are now rapid, over-
lapping turns:
This sequence continues with A4 increasingly taking the
floor until he interrupts X4 as she begins to respond and
more or less continues in monolog form until the time
is up, with very little further input from X4. The lack of
understanding over what is quite a central issue to this
conversation (loneliness), and this inability to synchronize
leads not only to a breakdown of mutual understanding but
a powerful breakdown of flow, and possibly, for this brief
moment, rapport.
The unfamiliar matched-dispositional condition (where A3
and A4 meet) seems to have a very different quality. Here
again, like in the familiar matched-dispositional interaction,
two speakers with the potential for long turns are engaged in
conversation, but it seems to flow effortlessly from the outset.
There is a pace to this conversation, with over-lapping turns that
seem to be borne of enthusiastic backchanneling and mirroring
of what the other has said, often becoming direct echoing
7This kind of response would be typical of an individual with alexithymia:
a condition relating to the “difficulty identifying and talking about your own
feelings” (Happé and Frith, 2020, p. 10) that frequently co-occurs with autism. The
presence of such a condition, particularly if unidentified, would likely contribute
considerably to difficulties in mutual understanding.
of words or phrases, as demonstrated in the following three
short extracts:
The most striking feature of this conversation, however, and most
indicative that these speakers are tuning-in, is the immediate and
enduring presence of humor and shared laughter, demonstrated
in the final extract above. The humor appears to expands a
sense of “solidarity” and rapport in which a deeply personal
exchange was able to take place (both participants also shared
how moving and surprising they had found the experience
shortly after recording).
This use of humor to draw an interlocutor into synchrony
contrasts with the way in which humor is used by A4 elsewhere.
In the unfamiliar cross-dispositional condition (with B3), for
example, A4’s humor predicts and then undermines B3’s earnest
attempt to talk about her recent mental health difficulties and
the reason she wanted to contribute to these conversations
about loneliness:
Following this deflective response, B3 ends her attempt to
talk about the loneliness she had recently experienced and
A4 takes the floor and, whether intentionally or not, this
turn acts to maneuver the conversation away from potentially
emotive content to a shallower sequence about loneliness facts
and statistics.
Humor, then, seems to be utilized in different ways by A4 in
these different conversational contexts to achieve different ends.
In interaction with non-autistic stranger B3, he appears to be
diverting the undesired direction of the conversation, moving it
away from the potential intimacy with a stranger. In the familiar
cross-dispositional condition (with X4) it comes across as (albeit
affectionate) mocking. But it would not be fair to say that
A4 consistently employs humor to avoid challenging emotional
content, for in the unfamiliar matched-dispositional condition
(with A3), humor rises up into natural exuberance, indicative of
the spontaneous rapport and in the same conversation he leaves
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compassionate space for A3 to weep, and to share some of her
childhood trauma:
While A3 finishes her story over the following 10 lines, A4 quietly
listens. There is no awkwardness, no attempt to interrupt or
disrupt the flow with deflective humor and no stilted pauses when
she has finished. Historically, this kind of muted response might
have been interpreted as evidence of an autistic lack of interest in
the feelings of others. Yet we suggest that this moment does not
represent an absence of affective empathy. It is a moment of deep
listening: of “daring to go on” (Sterponi and Fasulo, 2010) with
A3 and her intimate sharing.
Suite Two Running Along the Edges of Meaning
Directly following the extract above, A3 completes her turn
by explaining that her coping method, as a young child, was
to turn to books. A4 responds by offering his own parallel
anecdote, telling A3 how he also read a lot as a child, and used
it as a way to access fantasy worlds: “faraway lands and magic
and stuff that was all miles and miles away from what was a
very isolated childhood I think” (lines 206–209). For someone
who has repeatedly expressed uncertainty around the concept of
loneliness and what it means for him, this seems an insightful
moment. It spurs A3 to share a memory of a book that was special
to her, which triggers a creative, playful, exuberant sequence:
What makes this sequence so joyful, and powerful, is the
fact that they have both dared to play. There is a feeling of
an engagement of trust in the other’s utterances, scaffolding
progressivity out beyond the normal bounds of polite
conversation into childlike creativity. They have entered
what Sterponi and Fasulo (2010, p. 131) might refer to as a
“liminal conversation space.” Here, the world—that may, at
times, have been experienced as hostile and unwelcoming—can
be changed with the flick of a paintbrush or the swish of
an eraser.
Suite Three
Suite Three Flow and Tuning in
Suite Three also features two core participants (A5 and A6)
who demonstrate a tendency toward long turns. In the case of
A6, her long turns seem to occur as a result of her laboring
a little over formulating concise sentences. Like with A1’s
speech, there are false-starts, fillers, re-phrasings, multiple pauses
occasional stutters in her conversation with X6 (familiar cross
dispositional condition):
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These features all combine to stall the flow of A6’s speech and
the pace of the exchange. Where A6 interjects with supportive or
enthusiastic backchannelling when her friend (X6) is speaking,
X6 tends to sit back when A6 is engaged in formulating a long,
sometimes meandering turn. On first glance this may seem like
disengagement, but this conversation also seems to feature some
moments of affective coordination in the form of shared laughter
and cooperative sequences where both parties’ turns build toward
a shared perspective.
The unfamiliar cross-dispositional conversation 15 (where A6
meets B4) provides a useful comparison. There are just a couple
of moments fairly early into the conversation where B4 interjects
while A6 is speaking. These interjections are phatic agreements,
but because they are more substantial than X6’s simple “Mmms
(in familiar cross-dispositional condition) they arguably require
more processing effort.
On each of these occasions (lines 112–113; line 120), the
interjection appears to cause A6 a disruption in her train of
thought, triggering a stutter, a filler, a pause. Although the
interjection in line 120 (“yes”) is only a single word, it is delivered
elongated and with flat intonation, marking it as somehow salient
and requiring additional processing effort to derive the intended
effects (such as an implied attitude or an intention to take the
floor). These moments where one is required to simultaneously
produce an utterance and process an incoming one can be
hard for individuals with a monotropic disposition (i.e., with
tightly focused, rather than diffuse, attention). Particularly for
those individuals who also have sensory processing difficulties—
where parsing speech among a competing cacophony of other
(potentially informative) sounds is challenging—a cognitive lag
may ensue at moments of high-speed task-switching. These
temporary derailments do not seem to affect the potential
for rapport. What these two conversations together (both
cross-dispositional) perhaps demonstrate is that X6’s subdued
interjections may be reflective of her familiarity with her friend’s
need for space when constructing a complex utterance.
A6’s second conversation (in the unfamiliar matched-
dispositional condition, with A5) begins with a long turn, with
no backchanneling from A6 whatsoever until line 26, and then
only a handful of backchannels “Mmm”s or “Yeah”s for the
remainder of A5’s long turn (in total lasting 52 lines/1 minute and
44 seconds). Ordinarily this might indicate minimal engagement.
In the context of A6 potentially requiring more time to process
linguistic inputs (as discussed above), it might be tempting to
wonder whether she is taking time to acclimatize to the language
use of a novel interlocutor. Yet A6 begins her first turn (in line 53)
by answering with a series of short responses, almost list-like, in
response to the points A5 has made. It is here (lines 53–86) that
the pace begins to pick up with A5 acknowledging each of A6’s
comments enthusiastically, creating what might be described as a
conversational volley.
Perhaps it is the momentum that has been building that
sets the stage for synchrony, but in the following sequence
the pair arrive at a moment of mutual understanding—of
mutual manifestness—around the meta-perspective-taking of an
imagined other:
Here we assume that this hypothetical “other” (based, initially,
on A5’s mum) is non-autistic, and this is where the niche
of this particular moment of mutual manifestness works.
In this moment the othering routinely experienced by
autistic people is flipped, and A6’s “GET TO THE RIGHT
NUMBER” is an echoic parodying of an imagined non-autistic
perspective. A shared in-joke is created, based on the shared
and unifying experience of being judged by an external
“normative” perspective that both speakers can (a) speak to
and (b) safely assume their interlocutor, being autistic, is also
familiar with.
From here the conversation flows into a dense sequence of
apparent close attunement with overlapping turns where they are
not so much echoing each other as speaking in sync:
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Most distinctive about this next phase of the conversation,
however, is the dramatic shift in fluency of A6’s speech. The
stumbles, the re-starts and the drifting, long utterances are almost
immediately eradicated and in their place, there is a concise,
assured voice:
One possible explanation for this increase of flow of A6’s own
speech is that this is now her second conversation so she
has had time to shake off any initial nerves associated with
being recorded. However, as we saw above, in the subsequent
unfamiliar cross-dispositional condition, she reverted to the
earlier lack of fluency.
The rapport, flow, and attunement (in the form of
backchanneling and agreement), remain until this conversation
closes shortly after, as does A6’s new-found ease of expression.
This high level of rapport, attunement, and flow had not appeared
to be present in A5’s earlier conversation either. The familiar
cross-dispositional conversation (between A5 and X5) seemed to
lack flow, perhaps on account of the protracted monologic turns
taken predominantly by A5. While some rapport was present
(evidenced by moments of occasional phatic laughter, and
consistent backchannelling throughout), it remained restrained.
In A5’s final conversation, in the unfamiliar cross-
dispositional condition, she meets non-autistic stranger B4.
In contrast to the long turns with her familiar non-autistic
conversation partner X5, it begins with a smooth sequence of
shorter, interactive turns that flows easily, perhaps because she
has come directly from the highly fluid matched-dispositional
conversation with A6. Similar to the kind of subjective differences
seen in the conversation between A4 and his wife X4, these two
speakers describe very different lifeworlds. B4 likes “going out,
to the pub or to gigs and ideally in large groups. In contrast, she
has had to work hard not to feel self-conscious being seen alone
in public places (like a café). A5 tends to do things on her own.
Yet this pair acknowledged and approached their differences
with a kind of warm curiosity. They ask questions of each other:
not “have you understood me?” but “tell me more. . . ”:
Very early on in the conversation, B4 shares the observation that
her experience of being a student was quite lonely. As she put
it, she had not been able to “find her tribe”8. In offering up this
information, B4 exposes a degree of vulnerability from the outset.
Considering these interlocutors are strangers, this is quite a bold
move and one that invites intersubjective alignment and rapport.
More than that—and not necessarily knowing that this might
be the case—it sets the scene for common ground. While it is
not expressed directly by A5 that she too experienced difficulty a
community with whom she could connect, it is a common theme
of autistic experiences.
By the time we reach adulthood, autistic people’s experience
of “togetherness” has likely consisted of some combination of:
being intruded on by other people wanting us to engage with
them, when we don’t share that desire; being interested and
curious about other people, but finding them confusing and
overwhelming to be around; trying to engage with other people,
and having frustrating and unsuccessful encounters; managing
to engage “successfully” with other people, and finding ourselves
drained and possibly even damaged as a result of what we had to
do to “succeed.” (Sinclair, 2010, para. 3)
Here they appear to have inadvertently arrived at a means
of bridging two mismatched dispositions: by naming, early
on, a feeling of un-belonging that it is likely they both
can recognize. Despite this conversation being both with an
unfamiliar interlocutor and in the cross-dispositional condition,
there is a far greater sense of tuning-in, as compared to
the earlier conversation between A5 and X5 (familiar cross-
dispositional). With its rapport, affect, and synchrony it
seems to establish a sense of we-ness that might serve as
a temporary community, with all the nourishment that that
might bring.
Suite Four
Suite Four Flow and Tuning in
This final suite begins with a conversation between A7 and her
elder sister (familiar cross-dispositional). Unlike many of the
other core autistic participants, A7 does not dominate the floor
with long turns: if anything the conversation is guided by X7
as she poses the questions and ventures points to discuss. The
conversation lacks much enthusiasm or “spark” and, listening to
the recording, both participants speak in low, quite hushed tones
8We recognize that this term can be problematic, and potentially culturally
appropriative but we wished to remain true to the participant’s words and the spirit
with which they were uttered.
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with a consistently flat intonation. In addition to the frequent
cross-talk there are regular gaps and lapses.
However, both interlocutors seem keen to engage with the
other and progress the conversation. They each contribute and
respond relevantly to each other’s utterances. Yet despite this, the
conversation appears to flow like two strangers trying to dance
and repeatedly, apologetically, treading on each other’s toes:
This lack of flow also seems to corresponds with an absence of
tuning-in, perhaps because, as we saw in the cross-dispositional
condition involving A4 and his familiar partner, these two
speakers have quite different life experiences and lifeworlds
despite being sisters. X7 has settled into married life and lives
with her husband and two very young children. She, too, grew
up in Brighton and now often bumps into old and new friends
when she’s walking around. A7 lives in a shared house, has
very few friends and in spite of trying hard to meet people in
organized social activities (“meet-ups”), finds it hard to make
meaningful connections.
A7 has been explaining that she not only finds it hard to
meet people she can connect with in Brighton, but that the
fact she grew up locally makes her feel more self-conscious
about not having many friends here (“I feel like the weird
one for being, like, I’ve actually grown up here. I’ve lived
here most of my life but I’m lacking people even though
I’m in Brighton”). X7 is making attempts to console A7,
telling her that this lack of connection A7 is describing
is really due to chance (and perhaps attempting to imply
that it is therefore not attributable to anything intrinsic
to A7).
A7 seems to be trying to express a sense of isolation and
alienation from the wider society that can be a common
experience for autistic people. Inadvertently, in trying
to comfort A7, X7 may in fact be undermining A7’s
attempt to share her pain. This moment of missed mutual
understanding continues as each continue to talk from their own
conflicting perspectives.
The lack of mutual understanding does not appear to stem from
a lack of desire to connect. Here are two sisters who appear to
care for each other a great deal but their dispositional difference,
in this conversation, is seeming hard to bridge. While, in the
above lines, A7 seems to be trying to voice a profound loneliness
and a sense of not knowing how to reach out, X7 maintains the
belief that A7 always lets them know when she is feeling lonely.
What else can A7 really say other than “yeah. . . ” (line 305). As
the conversation draws to a close, and following X7’s suggestion
that A7 should send a text or even call someone if she felt really
lonely, A7 tries one more time to make her sense of detachment
from others around her understood:
These speakers appear to be talking at cross-purposes. A7 is,
seemingly, trying to talk about the unreliability of people while
X7 is talking about the unreliability of modern technology. The
information that A7 is working hard to convey is not mutually
manifest here, leading to a breakdown in mutual understanding.
This all contrasts with the way in which the conversation
involving A7 and B5 unfolds (the unfamiliar cross-dispositional
condition). As with all the non-autistic stranger participants
(“B”s), B5 does not know that A7 is autistic. Unlike the familiar
cross-dispositional condition, where cross-talk was prevalent,
here there is none. Turns are well-balanced, representing a
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consistently fluid back-and-forth. While A7 still has pauses
mid-speech—where she appears to be preparing the next part
of her utterance—there are very few of the lapses and gaps that
punctuated the earlier conversation with her sister.
For A5 and B4 in the same conversational condition
(unfamiliar cross-dispositional), the discovery that they had both
experienced difficulty in finding a community they could belong
to, opened up space for shared solidarity. In the same way, A7 and
B5 also find several things in common, such as the invisibility to
others of their deep loneliness and an aversion to socializing in
a context fueled by recreational drugs (something they describe
as common in the local social scenes). Around lines 78–89, B5
shares the observation that for her, one of the challenges of
approaching new people is the fact that it’s hard to know for
sure whether they are a “good person” or not. Although A7 does
not volunteer any further contribution to this topic, she does
agree emphatically:
So-called “social naivety” has long been associated with autism
(Lai and Baron-Cohen, 2015), and instances of interpersonal
victimization (or “mate crime”) are unfortunately common
among autistic people (Pearson et al., 2020). Whether or not A7
has had direct experience of this herself, she is likely to be at least
aware of the potentially increased risks.
Finally, a further similarity between the unfamiliar cross-
dispositional conversations of A5 and A7 respectively, is the
way in which the opportunity for rapport and intersubjective
alignment has been created by the sharing of some personal
information by one of the speakers. B5, for example, talks about
not having had a family growing up and how, now, it means that
she doesn’t “have people that I could just go to that just accept me
and will listen to me” (lines 210–212). The sentiment expressed
here sounds very similar to A7’s “I just never know if anyone will
answer” in her familiar cross-dispositional conversation [and,
incidentally, echoes A1’s “when you phone it (the mental health
helpline) no one ever answers”]. It is the “daring to go on”
(Sterponi and Fasulo, 2010) by making some private aspect of the
self-visible, that invites the possibility for mutual understanding
on a deep level.
Suite Four Running Along the Edges of Meaning
In the conversations involving A8 there is a distinct lack of
flow, although the extent to which flow is disrupted varies
between conversations. There is something idiosyncratic about
A8’s speech that sometimes can make it challenging to parse as a
reader: but in the real-time back and forth of each conversation
his interlocutors do not appear to notice directly. Structurally,
A8’s speech can jump at times between propositions that are not
clearly coherent, but the difficulties occur most frequently at (and
sometimes within) the level of a single word.
The precise nature of these errors is not clear from the
speech sample available, and we had no access to any detailed
assessment of speech and language, nor know whether this
participant has ever had contact with speech and language
therapy services. The errors may represent a developmental
pattern of a speech sound disorder which A8 could have had since
childhood. Speech sound disorders, while under-investigated in
autistic people, have received increasing attention (see Wolk
et al., 2016). Equally possible, however, are that these errors
may be “paraphasias:” the term given to the presence of errors
in an individual’s speech, sometimes as the use of wrong
words (“verbal paraphasia”), sometimes as wrong or switched
phonemes (“phonemic paraphasia”) or sometimes as half-correct
words (“neologistic paraphasia:” Millea, 2013). Although far
less discussed than, say echolalia, paraphasia is also associated
with autism, and there appear to be instances scattered among
A8’s speech (e.g., “everything” for anything, and “seeper” for
cheaper, Conversation 18, lines 67 and 135; “meed” for mean,
Conversation 20, line 68; and numerous verbal paraphasias)9.
Seen on the page these instances of word-level differences
may jump out as odd or disruptive. Yet most of them are easily
interpreted within the context of the surrounding utterance. At
high-speed, given that a listener is already predicting what will
be said before it has been spoken (Kikuchi et al., 2017), they
may easily have gone unnoticed. It is possible, however, that
they do contribute to the general stiltedness that colors these
three conversations, not least because the occasional re-starts
and re-phrases indicate that A8 is, to some extent, aware of
these mis-speaks and attempting to monitor them. To do this,
whilst also following his interlocutor’s speech and crafting his
own responses, is likely to add to the cognitive demand. It is little
surprise that this might entail extra processing time in the form
of pauses, gaps, and lapses.
A8’s first conversation, in the familiar cross-dispositional
condition with X8, lacks flow; there are a lot of gaps and lapses,
frequent topic changes, and seemingly missed opportunities to
extend or directly respond to what the other has said. Overall
there is a sense of rhythmic awkwardness, as if both of them
wish to keep the conversational ball in the air, but are finding
it difficult to do so. For example, early in the conversation X8
shares an anecdote from when she had been walking recently
in the countryside and was greeted by a stranger. A8 attempts
a parallel response about how similar things happen when he
goes for a walk near where his parents live, but stumbles a
little and his response lasts just three lines (“Yeah cos with my
parents are they. . . you th ey. . . you know if you. . . go on a walk. . .
there. . . most people say hello”). There is a short lapse, then A8
re-takes the floor (“But going back to London. . . ”). He proceeds
to comment on something he has heard about London lacking
racial integration, but it comes out awkwardly:
“People with the same backgrounds stay together so like, whites
would stay together and Asians would stick together and all that.
There’s no, like, I could be wrong but there’s no re-interaction
between mixed races. . . ”
The sometimes abrupt topic shifts between turns seen in this
conversation give the impression of two parallel dialogues
9Here the word “wrong” does not connote any negative judgement.
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maintained over several turns. This dynamic is far more
pronounced in the unfamiliar cross-dispositional condition
where A8 meets non-autistic stranger B6. Unusually for these
conversations, it is not the autistic participant (here, A8) taking
long, monologic turns but B6. From the outset, B6 seems to
dominate the conversational flow; his first turn is 50 lines
long (lasting 2 min and 4 s), interjected only by one “Mmm”
in line 35. This becomes a pattern during B6’s long turns,
where A8 provides minimal backchannel support but does not
direct the conversation. It seems possible that A8 lets B6 run
on because he is not entirely following B6’s points. In his
other conversations (familiar cross-dispositional and unfamiliar
matched-dispositional), A8 tends to interject yet during B6’s
extended opening turn, A8 does not make use of many and ample
pauses mid-flow. When he eventually re-enters the conversation
(line 55), he initiates a new topic where he explains how long
he has lived in Brighton and who he knows here, punctuated by
several pauses. He then acknowledges B6’s previous contribution
(“. . . but it’s a, it’s an interesting point what you made, erm”), but
picks out the incidental mention of the word “London” from
much earlier in the conversation, rather than the B6’s most recent
point that he has experienced a lot of loneliness while being at
university (“. . . but it’s a, it’s an interesting point what you made,
erm, I mean the London, I don’t go to London that often but
I, they don’t speak to each other on the tube they just listen
to music”).
In the moments throughout the rest of the conversation with
B6, when A8 does step in and take the floor, it appears to
be to re-orientate the discussion back to a question related to
the prompt cards (e.g., thinking about potential solutions to
loneliness locally). In the same way that, in the familiar cross-
dispositional condition, A8 and X8 would acknowledge each
other’s contributions but attempt to pursue a new direction, this
conversation only just hangs together in terms of coherence.
In the unfamiliar matched-dispositional condition, where A7
and A8 come together, the conversation seems to have a more
stable central point of gravity than A8’s other two conversations.
There is a symmetry in turn-taking and progressivity of the
conversation and despite the still-present gaps, pauses, and lapses
on the part of both speakers, this conversation nevertheless
seems to flow. The conversation begins with the pair cooperating,
via a series of short turns, to establish a joint definition
of “loneliness:”
A8 poses some questions for A7 (“have you ever experienced
loneliness in Brighton and Hove at all;” “do you know people or
can you talk to people here?”) that, although they are perhaps
a little stilted and led by the prompts, remain relevant and
cohesive with the previous turns. A little later, A8 shifts topic
again, asking A7 whether she thinks things like meet-ups might
help to address loneliness in Brighton and Hove (a topic that he
attempts to raise again in the subsequent conversation with B6,
to no avail). Fortuitously, A7 has some experiences with meet-
ups, as she described in the earlier (familiar cross-dispositional)
conversation with X7. This triggers a fluid exchange that
continues across 101 lines and 17 turns (and lasting 2 min and
28 s) divided across both speakers. This passage evolves naturally
from meet-ups, to the time and money required to do them, to
the working hours they both have, to how work in various sectors
impacts on the ability to socialize. It is perhaps significant that
the discovering of a shared interest initiated this extended, fluid
passage of interaction.
What marks this conversation out from the other two in
which A8 participates, is the fact that he appears able to sustain
focus and coherence for far longer stretches. Moreover, his
contributions are more directly relevant. While the enthusiastic
rapport that we have seen in some of the other pairings
seems to be lacking here, so too is the sense of awkwardness
that is sometimes present in both the cross-dispositional
conditions (familiar, with X8 and unfamiliar with B6). It is
difficult to assess exactly what it is that makes this matched-
dispositional conversation with an unfamiliar person function
more successfully. There could simply be some degree of luck
in A8 introducing a topic (meet-ups) that has some resonance
with A7. Given that the other topic-related sequences also run
on though, there is probably something else occurring here
too. In their study investigating neurodivergent intersubjectivity,
Heasman and Gillespie (2019, p. 910) found that conversations
involving only autistic interlocutors had “a low demand for
coordination that ameliorated many challenges associated with
disruptive turns.” It may be that in this matched-dispositional
condition there is implicitly less pressure for A8 to provide highly
contingent contributions at all times and that this, ironically,
allows him the space to provide them.
This study sought to investigate how implicit expectations of
shared relevance contribute to breakdowns in understanding
between autistic and non-autistic interlocutors. Eight core
autistic participants engaged in three short conversations
about loneliness: with a chosen, familiar conversation partner
(“X”), with an autistic stranger (“A”) and with a non-
autistic stranger (“B”). Mutual understanding was unexpectedly
abundant during these conversations across all types of
conversation pairings.
Clear patterns emerge when the four Suites of conversations
are considered together. The most striking of these is the
difference between conversations that involved two autistic
participants (i.e., the matched-dispositional conversations) and
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Williams et al. Mutual (Mis)understanding: Reframing Pragmatic “Impairments”
those that involved cross-dispositional pairs. All five matched-
dispositional conversations seem to be characterized by a
significant (and sometimes dramatic) increase in flow, rapport,
and intersubjective attunement. Conversations 3, 6, and 8 are
colored brightly by enthusiasm and mutual affect. In contrast, all
but a few of the conversations with non-autistic participants lack
the above, even when interlocutors were well-known—and had
been for a long time—to the core autistic participant.
The fact that interlocutors built rapport, flow, and synchrony
far more effectively when both parties were autistic, even when
they were strangers, seems to support theories that suggest we
get on best with people who have similar minds (De Jaegher,
2013; Bolis et al., 2017; Fein, 2018; Chapman, 2019; Conway
et al., 2019a,b). This, in turn, adds to evidence that counters the
ToM-deficit theory of autism and bears out anecdotal evidence
from autistic people that they sometimes find barriers to social
communication minimized when engaging with other autistic
people. For example, autistic academic Sinclair (2010, para. 42)
observes that “the ‘same planet’ metaphor, along with metaphors
about ‘speaking the same language’ or “belonging to the same
tribe” are very common descriptions used by autistic people
who have had the opportunity to experience an autistic-dominant
space. Similarly, autistic participants reported finding matched-
dispositional interaction (i.e., with other autistic people) much
more comfortable, in a study by Crompton et al. (2019a). Finally,
while it perhaps shouldn’t need to be said, the very presence
of the high rapport and mutual interest demonstrated in these
conversations contributes to the literature that challenges the
reduced social motivation hypothesis of autism (Chevallier et al.,
One further pattern is that some autistic participants
(A1, A6, and A8) appeared to experience optimal individual
communicative competence when engaged in exclusively autistic
dyadic conversations. For example, A1’s turns are shorter
and similarly more coherent in the matched-dispositional
conversation compared to the cross-dispositional interactions,
contributing to a fluid progression of adjacent turns as opposed
to the parallel dialogue of his previous conversation in his
familiar cross-dispositional conversation condition. Similarly,
when talking with A5, A6 is dramatically more fluent. Stumbles,
pauses and re-starts that characterize the typically long utterances
of the other two conversations are almost entirely absent and
replaced with concise, cogent turns. Conversation 19 is the only
one of three where A8 was able to maintain prolonged sequences
of engaged, coherent turns.
This finding potentially lends support to a monotropic theory
of autistic cognitive processing, explained by relevance theory.
In those circumstances where increased mutual manifestness
makes understanding less effortful (in both a technical relevance
theoretic, and an intuitive sense), more cognitive resources
are available for language production. Furthermore, according
to the theory of monotropism, the attention of monotropic
individuals is not simply narrowed, but also sharpened (Murray
et al., 2005; Murray, 2018, 2020). In states of “monotropic
superdrive” (Murray et al., 2005, p. 143) finer-grain details
may carry heightened relevance. It seems possible that when
two monotropic individuals synchronize their “torch-beams”
(Murray et al., 2005, p. 140) of intensified attention, something
like a hyper-confluence of cognitive environments may occur,
with increased affective reward. This may explain, for example,
why in a study involving an information transfer task (Crompton
et al., 2019b), autistic people both transmitted the necessary
information more efficiently and experienced higher rapport
when interacting with other autistic people. These findings have
potential implications for how the communicative competence of
autistic people is assessed, particularly if assessing interlocutors
are non-autistic.
Less common, but equally as important, are the moments
where the gap between sometimes very different dispositions are
bridged. The familiar cross-dispositional conversations involving
A1, A6, and A8, while low on flow and at times asymmetrical,
demonstrate how the familiarity of an interlocutor (X1, X6,
and X8, respectively) can be functionally supportive where
the autistic speaker struggles. In these conversations additional
processing time was given, interruptions minimized and mis-
speaks accommodated for. Yet it was during the conversations
with non-autistic strangers where some of the most surprising
moments of connection and mutual understanding were made.
A6 and A7, with their respective unfamiliar cross-dispositional
interlocutors managed to reach a state of attunement, flow,
and rapport through the establishing of affective common
ground. In the first instance this was achieved through warm
curiosity manifesting in frequent questioning about the other’s
experiences, and in the second through the volunteering of
personal information and emotional openness.
One potential reason for the high levels of mutual
understanding across all conversations may be because speakers
were orientated around a central topic (loneliness) which,
having agreed to participate, they had an intrinsic motivation
to address. If this is the case, it is not necessarily a limitation
of this study: it points to the importance of creating engaging
opportunities for interaction that match an autistic person’s
interests in order to support communication, something that
mirrors findings by Koegel et al. (2013) and Wood (2019). This
is further supported by the moments in these conversations
where the discovery of a shared intense by pairs of autistic
interlocutors sparked significantly increased conversational
flow and interpersonal attunement. Another potential reason to
consider is that participants may have become more accustomed
to the task across the three conversation conditions. However,
for six of the eight core autistic participants (all except for A7 and
A8), the matched-dispositional conversation conditions where
increased flow and attunement were observed came second,
not third.
Limitations and Directions for Future
As is often the case with rich, qualitative data, our sample size
is small and would bear replication. In terms of method, the
absence of a non-autistic-to-non-autistic pairing condition for
the conversations may seem to be a short-coming, particularly for
readers more accustomed to experimental designs. This, however,
was a methodological choice. In their study analyzing patterns
of intersubjectivity among small groups of autistic speakers,
Heasman and Gillespie (2019, p. 910) chose to focus solely on
the autistic-only interaction, arguing the following:
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Williams et al. Mutual (Mis)understanding: Reframing Pragmatic “Impairments”
Autistic people are neurologically divergent, yet methods for
investigating autistic sociality tend to assume neurotypical
definitions of being social. Comparative design often results
in autistic behavior being interpreted as a deficit, rather than
a difference, from neurotypical benchmarks (Heasman and
Gillespie, 2019, p. 910).
The aim of this present study was to investigate the strength
of the hypothesis that the relevance theoretic notion of
mutual manifestness might serve to support the double
empathy problem theory of mutual misunderstanding in
cross-dispositional communication. As such, our interests
centered around analyzing the way in interactions unfolded
in conversation taking place between autistic and non-autistic
speakers. Some form of comparison was, of course, necessary and
we felt that given our interest in the role of mutual manifestness,
familiarity served as the most meaningful condition criteria
(hence core autistic speakers were asked to bring a familiar
conversation partner for their first conversation, and then were
paired with an autistic stranger and a non-autistic stranger).
However, in future replications of this study it may be interesting
to include further conversation conditions, involving pairs of
familiar and unfamiliar non-autistic speakers.
Perhaps the most important limitation of this study, however,
relates to the sampling of participants: of whom all were
white Caucasian. This occurred organically through the self-
selection of the participants, though likely also reflects both the
demographic of the city within which the research took place,
and the diagnostic biases against autistic people of color and
minority ethnicities (Begeer et al., 2009; Fein and Rios, 2018;
Jones and Mandell, 2020; Cascio et al., 2021). This matters and
not only because of the urgent imperative to shift the focus of
autism research away from both the Global North and white-
centric stereotypes. These conversations featured a high degree
of rapport, conversational flow, and mutual understanding, but
this all occurred within a white, mono-cultural context. Cascio
et al. (2021) have noted the “double minority status” that
some autistic people of color may experience: something that
may further trouble opportunities for mutual understanding by
reducing what is held in common. Further studies investigating
intersubjectivity or the DEP may wish to address this, and actively
include autistic people of color within the cohort. Additional
implications for further research include replicating this study
with a larger and more diverse cohort of autistic participants,
as well as exploring the longer-term impact of therapies or
interventions based around shared flow states on the pragmatic
and prosocial abilities of autistic individuals.
Finally, there is an important caveat to be made in
relation to the present study. Findings such as these, which
indicate that autistic people may enjoy more synchronous
communication with fellow autistic individuals, must absolutely
not be interpreted as support for the exclusion of autistic people
from “mainstream” society. Furthermore, findings from this
study have not suggested that cross-dispositional attunement is
an impossibility: quite the opposite. We hope that these findings
might contribute to efforts to support and facilitate mutually
satisfying cross-dispositional interactions.
The datasets presented in this article are not readily available
because the ethical approval given for this study by the Tier II
Arts and Humanities Ethics Panel at the University of Brighton
covered the publication of anonymized extracts only. This was
based on the understanding that even when identifying features
are redacted from transcripts, conversation in full are inherently
recognizable. As such, regretfully we are unable to provide
transcripts in full. Requests to access the datasets should be
directed to Gemma L. Williams,
The studies involving human participants were reviewed and
approved by Tier II Arts and Humanities Ethics Panel at the
University of Brighton. The patients/participants provided their
written informed consent to participate in this study. Written
informed consent was obtained from the individual(s) for the
publication of any potentially identifiable images or data included
in this article.
CRediT contributor roles: GW, TW, and CJ: conceptualization,
methodology, validation, writing—review, and editing. GW:
data curation, project administration, and writing—original
draft. GW and TW: formal analysis and investigation.
GW: funding acquisition. TW and CJ: supervision. All
authors contributed to the article and approved the
submitted version.
This research was funded by a University of Brighton Arts and
Humanities Doctoral Studentship.
This paper includes content published in the PhD thesis of
the lead author, GW. With thanks to Assert Brighton and
Hove for the use of their premises and their support in
participant recruitment.
The Supplementary Material for this article can be found
online at:
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Conflict of Interest: The authors declare that the research was conducted in the
absence of any commercial or financial relationships that could be construed as a
potential conflict of interest.
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Frontiers in Psychology | 21 April 2021 | Volume 12 | Article 616664
... This theory is largely at odds with reports from the autistic community of a longing for improved social connection (Causton-Theoharis et al., 2009), and has been criticized on this basis (Jaswal & Akhtar, 2019). A discrepancy in mutual understanding between autistic and non-autistic individuals, rather than an autistic deficit in social motivation, provides a more valid framework for appraising communication difficulties and associated feelings of loneliness (Milton & Bracher, 2013;Milton et al., 2018;Milton, 2012;Williams et al., 2021). ...
... The first, quantitative study was a sub-study of the ADIE clinical trial and includes data collected pre-intervention at the baseline assessment only. The second, qualitative study was a sub-study of the 'Talking Together' community engagement project Williams et al., 2021). ...
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Despite the persistent stereotype that autistic individuals are not motivated to seek meaningful social relationships, rates of loneliness among the autistic population are higher than in the non-autistic population. In this two-part, mixed methods study, we sought to 1) quantify the level of distress associated with loneliness in autistic and non-autistic adults and 2) gain qualitative insight into autistic experiences of loneliness. In Study A, 209 participants (encompassing a group of autistic individuals and a group of non-autistic comparison participants) completed questionnaire ratings of their level of loneliness, associated distress, trait anxiety, depression, and sensory sensitivity. Results indicated that the autistic group scored higher levels across all measures. Both groups manifest strong correlations between loneliness and loneliness distress. In the autistic group, but not the non-autistic group, regression analyses showed that loneliness and sensory sensitivity predicted levels of anxiety, wherein the effect of loneliness on anxiety was partially mediated by the level of sensory sensitivity. In Study B, nine autistic adults took part in ten-minute, unstructured dyadic conversations around the topic of loneliness. Inductive and deductive analyses enriched qualitative understanding of the experiences of loneliness of autistic individuals. Our results broadly oppose the social motivation deficit hypothesis and we instead frame our findings within the larger context of ‘ethical loneliness’, concluding that a concerted effort is needed to overcome the fundamental disconnect with the neurotypical world experienced by many autistic people.
... Such a finding is consistent with a double empathy framework 28 positing that social alignment between people is a greater predictor of understanding and connection than individual characteristics. For instance, autistic adults often communicate more effectively 43 and develop greater rapport with each other 44,45 than with nonautistic people. The findings in this study provide additional evidence that impressions of autistic raters are not simply a product of their own social characteristics, but also those of the people evaluating them. ...
... For instance, a conversational AI implemented for a playful environment would typically demand a different interaction style than one which is put to use in a crisis or emergency context (Goetz et al., 2003). Likewise, a conversational AI may have to adjust its behavior depending on whether it addresses a child or an adult, or a person with specific communicative deficiencies (Williams et al., 2021). Adaptation of its personality to the personality of the interlocutor could also increase conversational quality by exploiting the mechanics behind similarity-attraction, as indeed people have been shown that people feel more attraction toward people or systems that match their personality (Lee and Nass, 2003). ...
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Different applications or contexts may require different settings for a conversational AI system, as it is clear that e.g., a child-oriented system would need a different interaction style than a warning system used in emergency situations. The current article focuses on the extent to which a system's usability may benefit from variation in the personality it displays. To this end, we investigate whether variation in personality is signaled by differences in specific audiovisual feedback behavior, with a specific focus on embodied conversational agents. This article reports about two rating experiments in which participants judged the personalities (i) of human beings and (ii) of embodied conversational agents, where we were specifically interested in the role of variability in audiovisual cues. Our results show that personality perceptions of both humans and artificial communication partners are indeed influenced by the type of feedback behavior used. This knowledge could inform developers of conversational AI on how to also include personality in their feedback behavior generation algorithms, which could enhance the perceived personality and in turn generate a stronger sense of presence for the human interlocutor.
... There has been growing recognition of the so-called "double empathy problem", which is very relevant for autism research in this tradition (Milton, 2012(Milton, , 2020Williams, Wharton, & Jagoe, 2021). This account essentially emphasises that when two social actors with different social dispositions (such as autistic and non-autistic people) interact, there will be a disjuncture in reciprocity. ...
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This thesis provides an in-depth, multi-dimensional analysis of the conversational behaviour of German-speaking adults with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in terms of intonation styles, turn-taking, backchannels, filled pauses and silent pauses. We recorded speakers engaged in task-based, semi-spontaneous conversation in two groups of disposition-matched speaker pairs (i.e. interlocutors either both did or did not have a diagnosis of ASD). Recording disposition-matched pairs has the advantage of giving us direct insights into autistic communication, in contrast to most previous studies, which used disposition-mixed dyads (i.e. conversations between autistic and non-autistic participants). Our analysis focusses on in-depth description at the levels of groups, dyads and individuals and is supported by Bayesian linear regression models. Previous findings on intonation styles in ASD are contradictory, with claims ranging from a characteristically monotonous speech style on the one hand to a characteristically melodic speech style on the other. We used a novel methodology for quantifying intonation styles in terms of both the range and the time-varying dynamics of pitch. Results show that ASD speakers tended towards a more melodic intonation style compared to control speakers. Crucially, no ASD speakers showed a tendency towards more monotonous speech. Turn-taking (the organisation of who speaks when in conversation) in ASD has only been described in two previous studies, which were limited in scope and based on the non-spontaneous speech of children and adolescents. Both studies found a tendency for longer silent gaps in ASD. We found no clear overall difference in turn-timing between the ASD and the control group, with both groups showing the same preference for very short silent-gap transitions that has been described for many other groups of speakers in the past. We did, however, find a clear difference between groups specifically in the earliest stages of dialogue, where ASD dyads produced considerably longer silent gaps than controls. Backchannels (listener signals such as "mmhm" or "okay") have not been investigated in ASD to date. Our analysis shows that the ASD group 1) produced fewer backchannels per minute (particularly in the early stages of dialogue), 2) produced a less diverse range of different lexical types of backchannel and 3) showed a less complex and less flexible mapping of different intonation contours to different backchannel types. Filled pauses (hesitation signals such as "uhm" and "uh") in ASD have been the subject of three previous studies, with mixed results. Contrary to two of these studies, we found that filled pauses were produced at an identical rate in both groups and that there was an equivalent preference of "uhm" over "uh". ASD speakers differed only in the prosodic realisation of filled pauses, producing fewer tokens with the prototypical level intonation contour. We further found that ASD speakers produced more long silent pauses than controls. We conclude this thesis with a summary analysis which highlights the importance of individual specificity, particularly in the ASD group, and shows that the clearest difference between groups was found for backchannel behaviour. Taken together, these results provide new insights into conversation strategies and intonation styles in ASD. We discuss our findings in the context of previous literature, general characteristics of cognition and communication in ASD, entrainment in social interaction, the social nature of communicative signals and implications for training and diagnosis.
... Combined with research that has shown the ways in which autistic people experience high levels of mutual understanding and communicative effectiveness when interacting with other autistic individuals (e.g. Crompton et al., 2019a;Heasman and Gillespie, 2019;Morrison et al., 2019b;Williams et al., 2021), a persuasive body of evidence emerges in support of the double empathy problem and its suggestion that lack of understanding between autistic and non-autistic people runs both ways. ...
Autism is typically characterised by impaired social communication, with pragmatic deficits commonly attributed to diminished theory of mind abilities. As such, autistic communicators have traditionally been used as a test case to evidence the explanatory power of relevance theory for ostensive-inferential communication.1 However, recent studies have begun to demonstrate the various difficulties that non-autistic people also have in understanding autistic people, such as problems in inferring autistic affective and mental states. These findings support the double empathy problem (Milton, 2012), which argues that intersubjective problems between autistic and non-autistic individuals are rooted not in one individual's deficient cognitive system but in a mutual failure to reach consensus. This paper challenges the way in which relevance theory has traditionally been applied to a so-called autistic pragmatic ‘impairment’ but argues that relevance theory—and in particular its central concept of mutual manifestness—may still offer crucial insights into these breakdowns of mutual understanding between autistic and non-autistic people.
Purpose The purpose of this letter is to draw attention to recent literature regarding the communication abilities and experiences of Autistic people and the potential for detrimental effects on mental health and service provision resulting from behavior modification programs. I will argue that viewing Autistic communication as characterized by pragmatic language impairment is inconsistent with evidence of effective and positive communication between Autistic people and with the social model of disability. Conclusion Proposals for interventions targeting Autistic people should carefully weigh the costs and benefits for Autistic people and should integrate the perspectives of Autistic people.
Purpose: The purpose of this letter is to address interpretations regarding Bambara et al.'s (2021) study and help resolve potential for further missteps within this line of research. Conclusion: There is clear value in teaching skills that are wanted by autistic people. The primary issue within the article is that it does not acknowledge the double empathy problem and is constructed based on only a neurotypical system of interpretation or communication style. What is being promoted is to address skills autistic participants request.
While there is an increasing focus on the use of online networks among autistic users, how autistic adults communicate in social networking sites remains underexplored. The article puts forward an argument for combining systematic observation of digital practices with analysis of evaluative language in order to provide a situated account of ‘autistic sociality’ in social media. Drawing on practice-based theories of social media affordances and discourse analysis research on online self-presentation and affiliation we show how autistic Twitter users rely on association, content persistence and editability in order to signal social engagement through different forms of interaction and alignment. We discuss how the proposed framework can provide a new perspective on communicative practices of autistic social media users and advance development of inclusive digital networking platforms.
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In response to Vivanti’s ‘Ask The Editor…’ paper [ Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 50 (2), 691–693], we argue that the use of language in autism research has material consequences for autistic people including stigmatisation, dehumanisation, and violence. Further, that the debate in the use of person-first language versus identity-first language should centre first and foremost on the needs, autonomy, and rights of autistic people, so in to preserve their rights to self-determination. Lastly, we provide directions for future research.
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What does it take to see how autistic people participate in social interactions? And what does it take to support and invite more participation? Western medicine and cognitive science tend to think of autism mainly in terms of social and communicative deficits. But research shows that autistic people can interact with a skill and sophistication that are hard to see when starting from a deficit idea. Research also shows that not only autistic people, but also their non-autistic interaction partners can have difficulties interacting with each other. To do justice to these findings, we need a different approach to autistic interactions-one that helps everyone see, invite, and support better participation. I introduce such an approach, based on the enactive theory of participatory sense-making and supported by insights from indigenous epistemologies. This approach helps counteract the homogenising tendencies of the "global mental health" movement, which attempts to erase rather than recognise difference, and often precludes respectful engagements. Based in the lived experiences of people in their socio-cultural-material and interactive contexts, I put forward an engaged-even engaging-epistemology for understanding how we interact across difference. From this perspective, we see participatory sense-making at work across the scientific, diagnostic, therapeutic, and everyday interactions of autistic and non-autistic people, and how everyone can invite and support more of it.
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The Talking Together community-engagement pilot project brought together pairs of autistic and non-autistic strangers to: (1) talk about their experiences of loneliness in their local city; and (2) think about potential, co-produced responses to the problem. The project had evolved as a secondary aim, from an initial need to acquire naturalistic conversation data for my linguistic PhD research investigating a theoretical reframing of autistic language use as ‘different’ rather than ‘deficient’. The desire to make the data collection a meaningful experience for the participants in its own right was central to the research design, and so the Talking Together loneliness project was devised as a way to achieve this. However, it was not until the research was under way that the potential for valuable, immediate impact became apparent. This article reflects on the successes and challenges of the Talking Together pilot as a piece of autistic-led participatory research, and explores how the principles of engaged, participatory research can be applied so as to maximize impact, even where engagement may not be a primary aim. It also explores the ‘participatory’ nature of participatory research where the researcher belongs to the marginalized stakeholder group.
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Lay abstract: Sharing information with other people relies on the ability to communicate well. Autism is defined clinically by deficits in social communication. It may therefore be expected that autistic people find it difficult to share information with other people. We wanted to find out whether this was the case, and whether it was different when autistic people were sharing information with other autistic people or with non-autistic people. We recruited nine groups, each with eight people. In three of the groups, everyone was autistic; in three of the groups, everyone was non-autistic; and three of the groups were mixed groups where half the group was autistic and half the group was non-autistic. We told one person in each group a story and asked them to share it with another person, and for that person to share it again and so on, until everyone in the group had heard the story. We then looked at how many details of the story had been shared at each stage. We found that autistic people share information with other autistic people as well as non-autistic people do with other non-autistic people. However, when there are mixed groups of autistic and non-autistic people, much less information is shared. Participants were also asked how they felt they had got on with the other person in the interaction. The people in the mixed groups also experienced lower rapport with the person they were sharing the story with. This finding is important as it shows that autistic people have the skills to share information well with one another and experience good rapport, and that there are selective problems when autistic and non-autistic people are interacting.
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**READ IT AT** Growth in autism research necessitates corresponding attention to autism research ethics, including ethical and meaningful inclusion of diverse participants. This paper presents the results of a review of research ethics literature, strengthened by consultation with a task force involving autism professionals, family members, and self-advocates on the spectrum. It reviews research ethics concerns around sex and gender; level of support needs; communication modes; race, ethnicity, geography, and language; socioeconomic status; and age. The exclusion of marginalized subgroups of people with autism is a major ethical concern. Researchers can facilitate inclusion by using inclusive terminology, developing accessible communication strategies, or traveling to meet participants. A person-oriented research ethics framework described in this paper structures the advice offered in the literature to create inclusive and supportive research environments.
The potential for pragmatic insights to be enriched, and even generated, from investigation of people with communication disabilities has been vastly underutilised in theoretical pragmatics. An adequate pragmatic theory must account for the full range of human communication, including that of people with communication disabilities. A similar argument has been made regarding pragmatic explanations of the natural non-verbal behaviours accompanying speech, which has lagged behind exploration of non-natural linguistic meaning. These two domains – pragmatic research into the meaning of non-verbal behaviours and clinical research into the communicative strategies of people with aphasia (the communication disability that commonly follows a stroke) – have the potential to inform each other. This paper builds on the idea that a relevance-theoretic ostensive stimulus is typically a complex of linguistic elements, which usually convey propositional information, and non-verbal behaviours, which carry emotional or attitudinal information that supplement the verbal content. Many people with aphasia, however, rely much more heavily on the use of non-verbal behaviours. What do these convey? How can what is conveyed best be described and explained? This paper will use the ‘bi-dimensional continuum’ in which meaning and showing are plotted against determinate and indeterminate intended import (Sperber and Wilson 2015, p. 147) to demonstrate the complexity of non-verbal communication in dyads where one partner has aphasia.
A history of systemic racism has led to too few Black Americans working in the sciences. Autism research is not immune to this problem, and the dearth of Black scientists and clinicians likely has contributed to health disparities among Black autistic people (Jackson & Nadine Gracia, 2014). People from underrepresented minority groups who are trained in science and medicine are much more likely to study and care for disenfranchised minorities than White scientists and practitioners (Cantor et al., 1996; Komaromy et al., 1996). By recruiting and supporting Black scientists and clinicians, we can address the underrepresentation of Black autistic people in research studies, helping to reduce health disparities and benefitting autism research as a whole.
Developing a universal quality standard for thematic analysis (TA) is complicated by the existence of numerous iterations of TA that differ paradigmatically, philosophically and procedurally. This plurality in TA is often not recognised by editors, reviewers or authors, who promote ‘coding reliability measures’ as universal requirements of quality TA. Focusing particularly on our reflexive TA approach, we discuss quality in TA with reference to ten common problems we have identified in published TA research that cites or claims to follow our guidance. Many of the common problems are underpinned by an assumption of homogeneity in TA. We end by outlining guidelines for reviewers and editors – in the form of twenty critical questions – to support them in promoting high(er) standards in TA research, and more deliberative and reflexive engagement with TA as method and practice.
Typically, although it’s notoriously hard to define, autism has been represented as a biologically-based mental disorder that can be usefully investigated by biomedical science. In recent years, however, problematic findings regarding the biological underpinnings of autism; historical research examining the shifting nature of the categorization; and a lack of biomedical utility have led some to suggest abandoning the concept of autism. My interest here is the possibility that autism may remain a meaningful and helpful classification even if it lacks scientific validity and biomedical utility. After arguing that accounts of autism as a psychiatric classification are unsustainable, I draw on feminist philosopher Iris Marion-Young’s distinction between groups and serial collectives in order to account for the reality of autism as a social category, best framed in terms of a social model of disability. When it is taken as a serial collective, I argue, we can coherently understand autistic people as forming a marginalized minority, disabled in relation to the specific material and social contexts, yet in a way that avoids neuro-centric commitments. Autism is thus real and valuable for political and ethical rather than biomedical reasons.
The victimisation of autistic people by friends and family (often referred to as ‘mate crime’, or interpersonal victimisation) is an understudied phenomenon despite suggestions that prevalence rates may be disproportionately high. The current study recruited a group of autistic and non-autistic adults, and using a mixed methods approach investigated whether a) autistic adults are more likely to be victimised and taken advantage of by people they know, and b) what sort of factors relate to an increased chance of victimisation. Results revealed that autistic adults were more likely to report interpersonal victimisation compared to non-autistic adults, however in both groups victimisation was related to difficulty identifying social intentions. Thematic analysis of interpersonal victimisation experiences in the autistic group revealed a number of common themes including difficulty identifying manipulation, compliance, external assumptions from perpetrators, and resilience. Findings contribute towards our currently limited knowledge of interpersonal victimisation in autistic adults, and suggest that any action taken to minimise these incidents focus on both supporting the individual, and reducing harmful societal stereotypes about autistic people.