Painting_kidCommunication problems are a major issue for children with autism. How soon should caregivers seek help for children with autism who have limited language skills? Researchers from the National Institute of Mental Health and the University of Utah conducted a longitudinal study to find out how the language skills of children with autism develop over time. The results indicate that language interventions are most effective before age six.

The researchers tracked language development of 106 children with autism who were referred to autism clinics for evaluation in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Parents and researchers reported on the children’s language skills and the researchers conducted tests on the children six times while the children were between the ages of two and 19.

Based on the results of the initial assessment, the researchers divided the children into seven groups.

  • Groups six and seven were the lowest performing groups, comprising 55 percent of the children. These children had severe autism symptoms and low verbal and nonverbal intelligence quotient scores as toddlers. By age 19, the children in group seven had the language skills of a typically developing two-year-old and the children in group six the skills of a five-year-old.

  • Group five, the ‘late delay’ group, children started with close-to-typical language skills, but fell behind. These children did not lose skills, but developed language more slowly than typically developing peers. They had the skills of a typical eight-year-old at age 19.

  • Groups three and four were, respectively, the ‘catch-up’ and ‘partial catch-up’ groups. These children started with poor language skills but quickly caught up. The ‘catch-up’ group had the typical language skills by age 19. The ‘partial catch-up’ group had the skills of a typically developing 11-year-old at age 19.

  • Groups one and two, ‘near typical’ and the ‘mild delay’, scored similarly to typically developing toddlers. By age three, their language skills were on par with developmental benchmarks.

Although there is a lot of variation during early childhood, the language abilities of children with autism are more predictable after age six. The researchers cannot say whether this is because of biological or environmental factors, but they do suggest that the best time for language interventions is before age six.

This research is published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry.

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