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Language and communicative development in children with autism spectrum disorder

Participants: Fritjof Norrelgen, Liselotte Kjellmer, Christopher Gillberg, Åsa Lundholm Hedvall, Mats Eriksson, Anette Holm & Elisabeth Fernell.

Background: Impairments in communication is one of the criteria for autism. The heterogeneity of linguistic ability in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) however is not reflected in the formal diagnostic criteria and there is a need for increased knowledge on how the impairments are manifested within various linguistic domains.

Method: These studies include a representative group of 208 preschool children with ASD, whose parents, over time, have completed questionnaires concerning the children's language development. In one study language and communicative abilities were assessed in relation to cognition, severity of autism symptoms and adaptive ability. In another study the proportion of children with ASD who do not develop phrase speech has been assessed. A subgroup of children who were not considered to fulfil criteria for mild intellectual disability (94 children) have also been examined by a speech-language pathologist using language tests and by preschool teachers assessing their pragmatic language skills. One study has assessed language comprehension in this group. In an ongoing study language profiles displayed by these children are analysed and in yet another study their pragmatic functions will be described. A follow-up of this subgroup at twelve years of age is currently being planned. We will in this study be looking at language, communication and reading and writing abilities.

Results: In the study of the whole child cohort we found that the cognitive level explained the major part of the variation in language and communication skills. Non-verbal communication was also related to the severity of autism and adaptive functioning. In the subgroup of children who were not considered to fulfil criteria for mild intellectual disability, language comprehension was impaired by 38% regardless of ASD. Moreover we found that the language comprehension in this group is only explained to a relatively low degree by cognitive level. The proportion of children who do not develop phrase speech was found to be 25%, and all of them also had an intellectual disability. So far the results highlight the need for detailed linguistic assessment of children with ASD.


Kjellmer, L., Fernell, E., Gillberg, C., & Norrelgen, F. (2018). Speech and language profiles in 4- to 6-year-old children with early diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder without intellectual disability. Neuropsychiatric Disease, 14, 2415-2427.

Norrelgen, F., Fernell, E., Eriksson, M., Hedvall, A., Persson, C., Sjölin, M., ... Kjellmer, L. (2015). Children with autism spectrum disorders who do not develop phrase speech in the preschool years. Autism, 19, 934-943.

Kjellmer, L., Hedvall, Å., Fernell, E., Gillberg, C., & Norrelgen, F. (2012). Language and communication skills in preschool children with autism spectrum disorders: contribution of cognition, severity of autism symptoms, and adaptive functioning to the variability. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 33, 172-180.

Kjellmer, L., Hedvall, Å., Holm, A., Fernell, E., Gillberg, C., & Norrelgen, F. (2012). Language comprehension in preschoolers with autism spectrum disorders without intellectual disability: Use of the Reynell Developmental Language Scales. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, 6, 1119-1125.

Fernell, E., Hedvall, Å., Westerlund, J., Höglund Carlsson, L., Eriksson, M., Barnevik Olsson, M., ... Gillberg, C. (2011). Early intervention in 208 preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder. A prospective naturalistic study. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 32, 2092-2101.

Fernell, E., Hedvall, Å, Norrelgen, F., Eriksson, M., Höglund-Carlsson, L, Barnevik-Olsson, M., ... Gillberg, C. (2010). Developmental profiles in preschool children with autism spectrum disorders referred for intervention. Research in Developmental Disabilities, 31, 790-799.

Page Manager: Anna Spyrou|Last update: 12/6/2018

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