While the grammatical ability of individuals with autism spectrum disorders is quite heterogeneous, pragmatic impairment is universal across the spectrum. Most studies of predictors of linguistic development in autism focus on the structural and lexical features of language as assessed on standardized assessments (e.g., Charman, 2003; Dawson et al., 2004); however, little is known about predictors of pragmatic language use. To assess this, it is necessary to examine natural language samples.
The objective of this study is to explore the predictors of pragmatic language use in toddlers with autism spectrum disorders.
Language samples for this study were taken from a subset (N=60) of toddlers who participated in a larger longitudinal study. The children were initially seen when they were approximately two-years-old (range: 20-33 mo) and again one year later. Fifty-two of the children in our sample returned for the third year of the study. During the visit, a number of standardized assessments were administered, including the ADOS, Mullen Scales of Early Learning, and the Early Social Communication Scales. Several episodes of the ADOS and a brief mother-child play session and mother-child snack were used for the language samples, which were transcribed and coded for pragmatic language use.
Each child utterance was coded according to its pragmatic function (e.g., requesting, expanding on a previous utterance, asking a question, etc.). The relationship between these various linguistic functions at ages 3-4 and predictors such as joint attention and other forms of behavior regulation will be discussed.
The findings show promising evidence that measures of prelinguistic communicative skills such as joint attention in young toddlers might be a reliable predictor of future language gains, not only in relation to structural/lexical linguistic development, but also with respect to the pragmatic functions of language use.