Autism and meta-representation: the case of epistemic modality


University of Antwerp, Linguistics (GER), Univer-siteitsplein 1, B-2610 Wilrijk, Belgium.


This paper investigates the meta-representational abilities of high-functioning autistic adults on the basis of their use of linguistic expression forms of epistemic modality. The investigation is based on data drawn from natural conversations (in Dutch) with four autistic subjects with varying IQ levels. Parallel to an existing in-depth corpus study of epistemic modal expression forms in normal language use (i.e. the ‘control data’ for the present study), the occurrences in the data of four types of such expression forms — modal adverbs (ADV), predicative adjectives (ADJ), mental state predicates (MSP), and auxiliaries (AUX) — are analysed in terms of their quantitative and qualitative comparability to the normal data. The results show normal usage of these forms for three of the subjects. Only one subject, with the lowest general IQ of the four, shows problems with particular types of usages. It is argued that these results show that although there is some truth to the classical ‘Theory of Mind’ theories of autism, they turn out to be too simple to account for the data. Suggestions for an alternative way of thinking about the nature of autism are offered.