The proposed project will investigate an under-researched aspect of communication in school age children with Aspergers syndrome (AS), namely their prosodic abilities. AS is a relatively frequent variant of autistic spectrum disorder that, at a conservative estimate, affects approximately 3-6 people in 1000. It is a lifelong condition, and is characterised by social and communication difficulties. Children with AS fail to grasp the tacit rules that govern social interaction, such as choosing suitable topics for conversation and talking in appropriate amounts (pragmatics); they show restricted, repetitive and stereotyped patterns of behaviour, interests, and activities, and have difficulty with aspects of language that go beyond literal meaning. Their cognitive skills are, however, generally within the normal range, so they usually receive mainstream education. Their social and communicative difficulties are, however, a major long term concern for educational support and health services. In children with AS, language skills such as their ability to understand and construct sentences, learn new vocabulary and produce speech sounds accurately are generally unimpaired, at least in early childhood. Nevertheless, it is frequently observed that along with interaction and social difficulties, children with AS often have speech that sounds odd. In most cases, this is because their intonation or tone of voice (collectively termed prosody) is unusual. Until recently, it has not been possible to assess prosodic skills systematically and in a standardised way. However, a new procedure (PEPS-C) has recently been developed. The aim of this study is to use PEPS-C along with other language tests in order to make a comprehensive assessment of communication in a group of children with AS, with a particular focus on their prosodic skills. A number of major outcomes are envisaged from the project. First, the study will allow a more accurate characterisation of the nature and extent of prosodic abilities and difficulties of children with AS. The second is a better understanding of the role of prosody in language development in general. Thirdly, the further refinement of the prosody assessment procedure will allow clinicians and researchers to assess prosody more generally as an aspect of communication in this and other communication disorders. Finally, the results will make it possible to develop improved intervention strategies for prosodic difficulties in children with AS. Forty children with AS aged 6-13 will be interviewed, along with 95 typically-developing children as controls, matched on age, sex and verbal ability. In the interviews, all the children will have their prosodic skills assessed, using PEPS-C. Additionally, the AS group will be assessed on well-established tests of core language skills: vocabulary, understanding of grammatical structures, articulation, linguistic expression and non-verbal ability. They will also be assessed on two other recently-developed procedures, one that will measure their pragmatic ability, and another to evaluate their narrative ability (the ability to remember a story and retell it). The results of these tests can be analysed statistically, to reach conclusions about the AS childrens prosodic abilities relative to those of typically developing children. In particular, it will be possible to establish whether the children with AS lack the ability to understand the ways in which prosody can change or enhance the meaning of words. If this is the case, it might account for some of their difficulties in appreciating social nuances and interactions. Statistical correlations will be carried out between test results, which will show whether certain communication deficits regularly co-occur. Of particular interest will be whether AS children with unusual-sounding prosody also have difficulties understanding implications conveyed by prosody. In addition to the assessments, the speech of children with AS and a comparable number of controls will be recorded and investigated using speech analysis software. This will enable acoustic generalisations and classifications of unusual prosody to be made, eg as to whether a child merely sounds odd or is also linguistically misleading. To date, descriptions of such prosody are limited to terms such as dull, wooden, robotic, bizarre. Acoustic analysis of abnormal prosody in the children with AS will lead to more accurate definitions of these terms. The research team for this study is highly qualified and multidisciplinary, with national and international reputations for research in their respective disciplines.. One member is a consultant paediatrician with a large database of children with AS, all of whom she knows personally. Another member is a linguist who has been largely responsible for the development of the prosodic assessment procedure. These two individuals, along with three experienced speech and language therapists, have been centrally involved

Start date
31 March 2004
End date
29 September 2006
Grant holder
Professor Fiona Gibbon
Ms M Rutherford
Professor Ineke Mennen
Professor Dorothy Bishop
Professor Anne O'Hare
Dr Robin Lickley
Dr Susan Peppe
Grant amount
Grant reference
Linguistics (General)
Grant type