Neural differences in social and figurative language processing on the autism spectrum

William W. Graves, Hillary Levinson, Linsah Coulanges, Shannon Cahalan, Daniel Cruz, Catherine Sancimino, Vanessa H. Bal, Miriam Rosenberg-Lee

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Individuals on the autism spectrum often have trouble with social and figurative language. As social language is often figurative, it can be challenging to disentangle the cognitive and neural sources of these difficulties. Neural systems for social cognition and language comprehension overlap in areas involved in retrieving linguistic meaning (semantics), such as the anterior temporal lobe (ATL), ventro-medial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC), posterior cingulate cortex (PCC), and posterior middle temporal gyrus (pMTG). Using adjective-noun phrases, we manipulated social/nonsocial and figurative/literal dimensions, which we expected to activate distinct but overlapping regions. We hypothesized that activation differences in the group with autism (AUT) would be greater for more social and figurative stimuli. During fMRI, participants in the AUT group (N = 19) and those in the non-autistic comparison (NAC) group (N = 22) made familiarity judgments to 192 phrases in a balanced 2 × 2 (social/nonsocial x figurative/literal) design. Social phrases activated the PCC in all participants, but only the NAC group activated the vmPFC. Figurative phrases were rated as more literal by the AUT group, with the figurative-literal phrase contrast showing no activation in the AUT group, but activating the PCC and right pMTG in the NAC group. The one significant group-level neural difference was for the social-figurative condition predicted to be most different between groups: greater activation for the AUT group in the right ATL. Differences in the right ATL and pMTG in the AUT group suggest altered engagement of right homologues of the canonical semantic network being recruited for processing combined social and figurative language.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number108240
StatePublished - Jul 4 2022

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Experimental and Cognitive Psychology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience
  • Behavioral Neuroscience


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Brain
  • Humans
  • Language
  • Magnetic resonance imaging
  • MeSH terms)
  • Semantics
  • Social cognition


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