Objectives: Using measures of expressive and receptive language, the current study examined the relationship between children with and without ASD’s language abilities and their engagement in a series of social-cognitive and prosocial tasks. Importantly, the social tasks required minimal verbal understanding. A measure of children’s nonverbal mental age was also obtained to account for differences in cognitive ability.
Methods: Children with ASD (N=11) and a group of TD children matched on nonverbal mental age (N=10) (Nonverbal Mental Age range 19-69 months) were assessed for their language abilities. All children engaged in the Mullen Scales of Early Learning (MSEL; Mullen, 1995) to obtain a measure of both receptive and expressive language. Additionally, the visual reception subscale of this test provided an index of children’s nonverbal mental age. Children’s communication skills beyond the laboratory were evaluated via the administration of the Vineland Adaptive Behaviour Survey (VABS; Sparrow, Cicchetti, & Balla, 2005) to primary caregivers. Children also participated in a series of play-based tasks designed to examine several social-cognitive skills (joint attention, imitation of bodily movements and actions on objects, intentional understanding). Participants were also presented with several social scenarios in which they were evaluated for their tendency to provide different types of aid to the examiner (i.e., retrieving and out-of-reach object, overcoming a physical obstacle, comforting, and sharing). Children with ASD attended the lab on a second occasion to confirm an Autism Spectrum diagnosis using the ADOS.
Results: Data collection will continue until each group includes 15 children. Using existing data, the relationship between children’s language abilities and their engagement in early social-cognitive behaviour was examined via a series of partial correlations. After controlling for nonverbal mental age, there was no relationship between children’s language abilities and overall social-cognitive performance in either group. The analysis of language in relation to prosocial behaviour yielded different results. There was no association between language abilities and overall prosocial performance in the ASD group. Conversely, TD children’s expressive language skills (MSEL) were positively associated with their overall demonstration of prosocial behaviour (r=.82, p<.01).
Conclusions: The association between language and social development during the preschool years appears to exist differentially in TD children and those with renowned language challenges, namely children with ASD. Rather than the mutually beneficial existence of language and social interaction, children with ASD appear to rely on mechanisms beyond language for social skill development. Conversely, given their relatively strong social performance paired with poorer language skills displayed here, the results suggest that children with ASD may not reap the language benefits of social engagement as do TD children.