Figurative language comprehension and laterality in autism spectrum disorder

Ronit Saban-Bezalel, Nira Mashal

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterpeer-review

4 Scopus citations


Figurative language serves various pragmatic goals (Roberts & Kreuz, 1994). Indeed, it is commonly used in everyday communication (Gibbs, 2000; Levorato & Cacciari, 2002). The comprehension and production of figurative meanings primarily derive from the ability to go beyond local processing to search for a global, coherent meaning in order to identify the meaning intended by the speaker (Levorato & Cacciari, 1999). Thus, comprehensions and production of figurative utterances integrate both the surface meaning and the pragmatic intent of the communicative partner (MacKay & Shaw, 2004). Autistic Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder that reflects a continuum of abilities and difficulties. The essence of the disability is reflected in the social-communicative area. Five criteria are required for this diagnosis: (1) persistent deficits in social communication and social interaction across multiple contexts; (2) restricted, repetitive patterns of behavior, interests, or activities; (3) symptoms must be present in early developmental period; (4) symptoms cause clinically significant impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of current functioning; and (5) these disturbances are not better explained by intellectual disability or global developmental delay (American Psychiatric Association [APA], 2013: DSM V). Difficulties in linguistics and communication represent a central domain in autism (APA, 2000). Pragmatic skills that impair the understanding of the social function of language are affected in ASD. In particular, research suggests that individuals with ASD experience difficulty in comprehending figurative language and tend to interpret such language literally. Studies that examined comprehension of figurative language in children and adolescents with ASD have focused on idioms (Mashal & Kasirer, 2011; Norbury, 2004; Whyte, Nelson, & Scherf, 2014), metaphors (Mashal & Kasirer, 2011; Rundblad & Annaz, 2010), and irony (Colich et al., 2012; Pexman et al., 2011). MacKay and Shaw (2004) examined the ability of children with ASD to comprehend the meaning and the intentionality of a figurative utterance as compared to children with typical development (TD). Comprehension was examined in six different categories of figurative language, including hyperbole, indirect requests, irony, metonymy, rhetorical questions, and understatement. Each story ended with a character using a figurative utterance, followed by two questions, one regarding the surface meaning of the utterance and one regarding the intent.

Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Handbook of the Neuroscience of Creativity
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages16
ISBN (Electronic)9781316556238
ISBN (Print)9781107147614
StatePublished - 1 Jan 2018
Externally publishedYes


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