Language Subdomains Among Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: Associations with Social Skills
As deficits in both language and social skills often remain impairing symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), considerable research has been devoted towards better understanding the nature of these co-occurring, yet distinct symptom clusters. Although a meaningful proportion of children with ASD evidence difficulties across language domains, the majority of prior research has focused on pragmatic language skills. However, given the multi-faceted nature of language skills, there is a need for research that examines how specific aspects of language relate to social skills development.
Examine the association between multiple language domains (e.g., phonology, semantics, syntax, pragmatics) and social skills among children with ASD.
Participants included children with ASD (N=196) between 4 and 7 years of age, their caregivers, and teachers. Using the Children’s Communicative Checklist-2 (CCC-2) and Social Skills Improvement System (SSIS), we examined how multiple aspects of language cumulatively relate to social skills. We also examined whether any one language domain was uniquely related to social skills above and beyond the other language domains.
The CCC-2 includes multiple pragmatic language subscales, given that pragmatic language is a multi-faceted language domain. Thus, as a first step we examined five aspects of pragmatic language (coherence, scripted language, context, social relations, nonverbal communication) to determine which one was most strongly associated with social skills. Only the non-verbal communication subscale emerged as significantly related to social skills, and thus was included in subsequent analyses. In a combined linear regression with parent-reported social skills as the dependent variable, with phonology, semantics, syntactic, and pragmatic language skills all entered in the same step of the regression, 17.8% of the variance in children’s social skills was explained by their language skills, F(4, 173) = 10.599, p = .000. In this combined model, children’s syntactic (β = -.258, p = .010) and pragmatic language skills (β = .320, p = .000) uniquely related to social skills, but semantic and phonological skills did not. In a combined linear regression with teacher-reported social skills as the dependent variable, 6.3% of the variance in social skills was explained by their language skills, F(4, 129) = 3.234, p = .014. Interestingly, children’s syntactic language skills (β = .411, p = .002) uniquely related to social skills, while semantics, phonology, and pragmatics were not significantly associated with teacher-reported social skills. Overall, syntactic language skills emerged as significantly related to social skills in both home and school contexts; whereas pragmatic language skills were significantly associated with home-based, but not school-based social skills.
The results of the present study indicate that in addition to pragmatic language skills, more structural aspects of language, such syntax, may also influence social skills among children with ASD. Given the well-documented association between pragmatic language skills and social skills in ASD, the majority of intervention programs generally focus on pragmatic language skills development. However, the results of the present study indicate that syntactic language skills are also related to social skills development, and may thus be a critical, yet largely untapped route of intervention.