A syntactic investigation of verbal autistic, mentally retarded, and normal children
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The syndrome of childhood autism is typified by major abnormalities in language development, yet there are few systematic descriptions of autistic children's linguistic systems. We have, therefore, begun a comprehensive investigation of the language of verbal autistic children and concentrate in this paper on comparing the syntax used by 10 verbal autistic children matched for nonlinguistic mental age with a group of mentally retarded subjects and normal controls. Two different means of assessing syntactic development were utilized: Lee's Developmental Sentence analysis and Chomsky's Transformational analysis. The autistic group was found to rank significantly lower than either the mentally retarded or the normal groups in terms of Developmental Sentence Scores. When a transformational grammar was used to describe the language samples of our subjects the autistic children were typified by a higher error rate and lower level of complexity compared to the other two groups. However, the results also indicate that the grammatical system of autistic children is rule-governed and probably not unlike that of young normal or retarded children. In conclusion, it appears that the syntactic abnormalities characteristic of autism are attributable to an extreme delay in language development as well as to an impaired ability to make use of linguistic rules.
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