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Interpretation of Indirect Requests by Autistic Adults

Principal Investigator(s):

Faith Frost

Grant Type:

Graduate Research




James Madison University

Year Awarded:



In Progress


Employment, Transition, and Adults; Social and Communication Skills


In conversation, context can change how we interpret certain utterances. The ability to use context to inform meaning is referred to as pragmatics. Autism Spectrum Disorder is characterized by deficits in pragmatics. In particular, autistic individuals have difficulty using context to interpret ambiguous utterances. Many utterances produced in conversation are ambiguous, including indirect requests. There are two types of indirect requests: conventionalized and non-conventionalized. Conventionalized indirect requests, such as “Can you turn on the heater?”, require little inference and are simple to understand. Research has shown autistic individuals respond to these types of requests similarly to their NT peers. Meanwhile, non-conventionalized indirect requests, such as “It’s cold in here”, require more inferencing. Theory of Mind (ToM) describes the ability to infer the mental states of others. Trott and Bergen (2018, 2020) found that NT adults, who exhibited lower ToM scores, performed poorer on their non-conventionalized indirect request task. This suggests that in order to comprehend non-conventionalized indirect requests, one must be able to infer the mental state of the speaker. Previous research has proposed that the pragmatic deficits characteristic of ASD are, in part, due to impairments in ToM. The role of ToM in comprehension of indirect requests for autistic individuals is unclear. Few studies have been conducted on how autistic adults interpret indirect requests, and the results of the research that does exist are conflicting. The purpose of this study is to examine how autistic adults determine whether a statement could or should be interpreted as an indirect request, depending on context. Three questions will be examined: (1) How do autistic adults compare to their NT peers on a non-conventionalized indirect request task? (2) Is ToM predictive for how individuals perform on a non-conventionalized indirect request task? (3) Are executive functioning skills predictive for how individuals perform on a non-conventionalized indirect request task?