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Gains in Social Skills ‘Spill Over’ into Language Development

Therapists have long reported that programs that emphasize social engagement help children with autism gain skills in other areas. Researchers found evidence of such “cascading” benefits in a study presented today at the International Meeting for Autism Research (IMFAR), in Toronto, Ontario.

Researchers from across Canada participated in the “Pathways in ASD” study. It compared progress in social skills and language development in 365 toddlers and preschoolers recently diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The children ranged in age from 2 to 4 years. The researchers followed their progress for one year after diagnosis.

They found that children who experienced the greatest gains in social skills also made significant gains in language. However, the reverse was not true. Rapid gains in language had a much smaller association with increased social skills. The exception were children with low IQs. Their language development was a strong predictor of growth in social skills.

Understanding how children with autism progress can guide the development of more effective interventions, says lead researcher Teresa Bennett, of the Offord Centre for Child Studies at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. It may also shed light on why some individuals with autism achieve independence in adulthood, while others need substantial lifelong support.

“The Canadian 'Pathways in ASD' study is important because it lends support to the idea of the cascading benefits of early interventions that increase social skills,” says Autism Speaks Chief Science Officer Geri Dawson, Ph.D. “The take home message is that a focus on social skills in early intervention will promote the most positive outcomes.”

Two of the centers involved in the study – Toronto’s Hospital for Sick Children and Edmonton’s University of Alberta – are affiliates of Autism Speaks Autism Treatment Network (ATN).

For more news and commentary, please see our 2012 IMFAR page