Theory of autistic mind: A renewed relevance theoretic perspective on so-called autistic pragmatic ‘impairment’

Gemma Williams

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


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.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)121-130
Number of pages10
JournalJournal of Pragmatics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 26 May 2021

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The research was funded by a University of Brighton Art and Humanities Doctoral Studentship.


  • Autism
  • Mutual manifestness
  • Double empathy problem
  • Theory of mind
  • Relevance theory


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