Semantic and syntactic properties of words and the receptive–expressive gap in autistic and non-autistic children

Jonet Artis, Sudha Arunachalam

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Purpose: The goal of this work was to examine the semantic and syntactic properties of the vocabularies of autistic and non-autistic infants and toddlers to see if children in these two groups know different kinds of words. We focused on both receptive and expressive vocabularies. For expressive vocabulary, we looked only at the “active” lexicon: Of those words that are already in children’s receptive vocabulary, we asked which ones they also produce. Method: We used an existing data set of 346 parent report vocabulary checklists (MacArthur–Bates Communicative Development Inventory: Words and Gestures) from 41 autistic and 27 non-autistic children at multiple timepoints between the ages of 6 and 43 months. We coded the words on the checklists for various semantic and syntactic properties and evaluated which properties predicted whether children understood and produced those words. Results: Overall, we replicated a common finding that autistic children have smaller receptive vocabularies than non-autistic children, but we found that of the words they understand, autistic children produce a similar proportion of those words as non-autistic children. While we found that some syntactic properties are more or less likely to be represented in children’s early vocabularies (e.g., nouns are more likely to be understood and produced than words that are not nouns), these patterns did not differ across autistic and non-autistic children. Conclusions: The semantic and syntactic compositions of autistic and non-autistic children’s vocabularies are similar. Thus, while receptive vocabularies are relatively smaller for autistic children, they do not appear to have specific difficulty with words that have particular syntactic or semantic properties, or with adding words to the expressive vocabulary that they already understand.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)1771-1791
Number of pages21
JournalJournal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research
Issue number5
StatePublished - May 2023

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Language and Linguistics
  • Linguistics and Language
  • Speech and Hearing


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