J Child Psychol Psychiatry 2020 Jul 19;61(7):826-835. Epub 2019 Aug 19.
Tel Aviv University, Tel Aviv, Israel.
Background: Studies estimate that 30% of individuals with autism are minimally verbal. Understanding what factors predict longer-term expressive development in children with language delays is critical to inform identification and treatment of those at-risk for persistent language impairments. The present study examined predictors of expressive language development in language-delayed preschoolers followed through later school-age and young adulthood.
Methods: Children using single words or less on the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) at approximately 3 years old were drawn from the Early Diagnosis (EDX) and Pathways in ASD longitudinal cohorts. Age-3 predictors of Age-19 ADOS language level were identified using Classification and Regression Trees (CART) in the EDX sample. Linear mixed models examined the effects of CART-identified predictors on Vineland expressive communication (VExp) trajectories from Age-3 to Age-19. The same linear mixed models were examined in the Pathways sample, identifying predictors of VExp from ages 3 to 10.5 years.
Results: Significantly delayed fine motor skills (T-score < 20) was the strongest CART predictor of Age-19 language. In the linear mixed models, time, Age-3 fine motor skills and initiation of joint attention (IJA) predicted VExp trajectories in the EDX sample, even when controlling for Age-3 visual receptive abilities. In the Pathways sample, time and Age-3 fine motor skills were significant predictors of VExp trajectories; IJA and cognitive skills were not significant predictors.
Conclusions: Marked deficits in fine motor skills may be a salient proxy marker for identifying language-delayed children with ASD who are at risk for persistent language impairments. This finding adds to the literature demonstrating a relation between motor and language development in ASD. Investigating individual skill areas (e.g., fine motor and nonverbal problem-solving skills), rather than broader indices of developmental level (e.g., nonverbal IQ) may provide important cues to understanding longer-term language outcomes that can be targeted in early intervention.