Tell me where it is: Selective difficulties in spatial language on the autism spectrum

Agata Bochynska, Kenny R. Coventry, Valentin Vulchanov, Mila Vulchanova

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Citations (Scopus)
13 Downloads (Pure)


Proficient use of spatial terms such as under, to the left of or in front of is a central component of daily communication and is important in the development of language and spatial cognition. Here we examine spatial language abilities in intellectually high-functioning individuals with autism spectrum disorder, an area previously overlooked in autism research. Twenty-five high-functioning individuals with ASD and 25 typically developing controls, matched for chronological age and cognitive abilities, completed a novel battery tapping a broad range of spatial language abilities. We report selective difficulties in the production of spatial terms and spatial description recall in high-functioning ASD. Overall verbal abilities did not account for the observed group differences. Crucially, however, the intensity of autism spectrum traits predicted individual performance in both spatial language production and spatial description recall. We discuss the theoretical implications of these findings and explore their significance for both clinical practice and intervention. Lay abstract: How we think and talk about space is an essential ability, necessary for understanding the world around us. We recruit spatial thinking every day when finding our way or using tools but also in more advanced tasks, such as reading complex graphs or maps. We do so also in daily communication when we use spatial language, terms such as under, over, to the left of or in front of, and when we give instructions. Spatial terms appear in children’s early vocabularies and continue to develop until late childhood or even early adolescence. Because spatial language develops over many years, some spatial terms are mastered very early, whereas others take longer to acquire. In the current set of studies, we tested how intellectually high-functioning children and adults on the autism spectrum use and understand these early- and late-acquired spatial terms in comparison to typically developing age-matched individuals. We found that children and adults on the autism spectrum experience difficulties with the use of some spatial terms (e.g. near and far or out of and down off) but not with others, which are acquired early (e.g. in and on or over and under). We also found that remembering spatial terms from short stories was more difficult for the individuals on the autism spectrum compared with typically developing individuals. These results reveal difficulties that can profoundly affect everyday communication of children and adults on the autism spectrum but also open new directions of research on language development in autism spectrum disorders.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1740-1757
Number of pages18
Issue number7
Early online date4 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2020


  • developmental delay
  • linguistic development
  • selective deficits
  • spatial language
  • spatial prepositions

Cite this