Language, Grammar, and Nonverbal Cognitive Abilities in Adolescents and Young Adults with ASD: A Pilot Study

Poster Presentation
Friday, May 3, 2019: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Room: 710 (Palais des congres de Montreal)
T. M. Girolamo and M. L. Rice, Child Language Doctoral Program, University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS
Background: Little is known about the language abilities of adolescents and young adults with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Even less is known about how language abilities in this age range may relate to other developmental outcomes, such as nonverbal cognitive abilities. Previous work has found that some individuals with ASD may also have language impairment. Yet there is a gap in understanding how language, grammar, and nonverbal cognitive abilities may relate to one another. This gap has direct implications for understanding the phenotypic variability in autism, as well as in meeting the needs of individuals with ASD across the life span.

Objectives: A pilot study was carried out to investigate the following research questions:

  1. How do language abilities compare to grammar abilities?
  2. How do language abilities relate to nonverbal cognitive abilities?
  3. How do nonverbal cognitive abilities compare to grammar abilities?

Methods: The Institutional Review Boards of the University of Kansas and the New York City Department of Education approved this study. This study was a descriptive study evaluating the efficacy of individualized assessment. Participants were assessed in a single session outside of school. The assessment protocol consisted of: 1) the Clinical Evaluation of Language Fundamentals-3 (CELF-3); 2) the Test for Early Grammar Impairment (TEGI); 3) the Columbia Mental Maturity Scale (CMMS), and; 4) the WISC-III Digit Span (D-Span).

All participants (n=10) carried a diagnosis of ASD, as students in a specialized school where most students qualify for Title I funding and free/reduced lunch, and were exempt from state standardized testing. The least restrictive environment of all participants was a self-contained classroom in a ratio of 8 or 12 students to 1 classroom teacher and 1 classroom paraprofessional. All participants were male, a racial/ethnic minority, and an adolescent (M = 18.3 years, range = 15 - 21 years).

Given the exploratory nature of the study, analyses included descriptive analysis and visual inspection of the data.

Results: Results revealed that:

  1. Language abilities may not straightforwardly associate with grammar abilities. While CELF-3 scores showed little variation, with 80% showing a floor effect, the TEGI showed more variability. 50% of participants demonstrated adult-like performance (i.e., 97% or above).
  2. Language abilities may not straightforwardly associate with nonverbal cognitive abilities. There was greater variability in the CMMS and the WISC III D-span than the CELF-3, such that 50% of participants had a maturity index of above 9L on the CMMS and 10% had an above-average on the D-span. An additional 20% had a score one SD below the mean on the D-Span.
  3. Nonverbal cognitive abilities may not straightforwardly associate with grammar abilities. Some participants had relatively high maturity indices but non-adultlike grammar abilities.

Conclusions: Preliminary findings suggest that language, grammar, and nonverbal cognitive abilities may not always positively associate with one another. To better understand the relationships between various developmental outcomes in individuals with ASD, future research should focus on expanding the sample size and on documenting outcomes over time.

References available upon request.