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UBC Theses and Dissertations

Discourse coherence and atypicality in autistic adults : from corpus analysis to subjective impressions of spoken discourse Geelhand de Merxem, Philippine


Adequate and efficient participation in a social interaction requires the ability to produce and interpret coherent discourse. Coherence can be achieved using a diverse set of cognitive and linguistic tools such as topic continuity or connectives. Failing to produce enough coherence cues or to interpret them as such can lead to communication breakdowns, potentially compromising the on-going interaction. In a neurodevelopmental disorder like autism, characterized by impairments in social communication, autistic individuals often fail to produce and understand coherent discourse. Numerous studies have already used discourse analysis to examine discourse (in)coherence and (a)typicality in autistic individuals. However, the studies have been one-sided in terms of methodology, viz. investigating either discourse production or comprehension, but not both. They have also been one-sided in terms of the perspective of the analysis, viz. only considering discourse coherence from the standpoint of neurotypical individuals, without also considering the perspective of autistic individuals. However, social communication is a two-sided dynamic, whereby both communication partners contribute to the coherence of the unfolding discourse. Therefore, the aim of this dissertation is to define the qualities of discourse (in)coherence and (a)typicality in autistic adults by combining both detailed transcript analyses and more subjective interpretation of spoken discourse, by both neurotypical and autistic individuals. To achieve these aims, a corpus of interviews of French-speaking autistic adults and French-speaking neurotypical adults, matched on gender, age and IQ was collected. The data of three interview tasks was annotated and underlie the entire work of this dissertation. On the basis of the annotated data, detailed transcript analyses were performed to examine both the content and the delivery strategies of spoken discourse in autism. In a subsequent step, discourse features identified in transcripts are related with their perception by naïve listeners with and without a diagnosis of autism as well as their contribution to impression formation of the speaker. Taken together, this dissertation shows a consistent difficulty in the production of coherent discourse which transpired both in content and delivery strategy. Crucially, reduced discourse coherence resulted in a one-sided ‘neurotypical’ bias towards autistic individuals, which is likely to further hinder their communication success.

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