Talking together at the edge of meaning
: Mutual (mis)understanding between autistic and non-autistic speakers

  • Gemma Williams

    Student thesis: Doctoral Thesis


    A central diagnostic and anecdotal feature of autism is difficulty with social communication. Traditionally, these difficulties are regarded as autistic impairments, related to proposed cognitive and social deficits. From this perspective the onus of failures in mutual understanding is placed within the mind/brains of the autistic individuals involved. However, recent research in the social sciences and critical autism studies is beginning to demonstrate that non-autistic people have challenges in understanding autistic people too, and to reframe the communicative difficulties as a two-way double empathy problem.
    A survey of the literature reveals the need for further empirical investigation of the proposed double empathy problem. This thesis builds on contemporary studies examining intersubjectivity between autistic and non-autistic people, and moves this research into the domain of cognitive linguistics. It explores, theoretically, whether relevance theory (a cognitive account of utterance interpretation) might help make sense of what is happening pragmatically during these breakdowns in mutual understanding. It also examines whether a radical reframing of these breakdowns as akin to intercultural problems might provide any valuable insights.
    The thesis begins with an interdisciplinary literature review that outlines the central constructs and themes contained within. To begin, the thesis presents an overview of autism research, covering both traditional biomedical theories and more recent phenomenological perspectives informed by the neurodiversity paradigm. Autistic minds are considered as autistically embodied agents navigating a social world comprised of non-autistically shaped norms. Relevance theory is then introduced within the wider context of cognitive pragmatics, and its application to interactions across dispositional borders (i.e. between autistic and non-autistic individuals) technically explored.
    The second half of the thesis reports on and discusses the results of a small-scale linguistic ethnographic case study. Eight core autistic participants 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 to investigate where mutual understanding is and is not achieved.
    There is increasing acknowledgement of the importance of autistic stakeholder involvement in autism research. In order to bring my own autistic insights more centrally into this work, I have taken an autoethnographic approach. This method draws on the lived experience of the researcher as a member of the group being studied, and as such offers an emancipatory mechanism for raising up previously marginalized voices.
    Date of AwardOct 2020
    Original languageEnglish
    Awarding Institution
    • University of Brighton
    SupervisorTim Wharton (Supervisor), Elly Ifantidou (Supervisor) & Chrystie Myketiak (Supervisor)

    Cite this