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Exploring the borderlands of autistic disorder and specific language impairment: a study using standardised diagnostic instruments

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Background: Two studies were conducted to test claims that pragmatic language impairment (PLI – previously referred to as semantic-pragmatic disorder) is simply another term for autistic disorder or pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDDNOS).

Method: In Study 1, 21 children aged from 6 to 9 years with language impairments were subdivided on the basis of the Children's Communication Checklist into 13 cases of pragmatic language impairment (PLI) and eight cases of typical specific language impairment (SLI-T). Parents completed the Autism Diagnostic Interview – Revised (ADI-R) and the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ), and the children were given the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule – Generic (ADOS-G). In Study 2, a further 11 children with SLI-T and 18 with PLI were assessed using the SCQ and ADOS-G. In addition, six children diagnosed with high-functioning autism and 18 normally developing children were assessed.

Results: There was good agreement between ADI-R and SCQ diagnoses, but poor agreement between diagnoses based on these parental report measures and those based on ADOS-G. In many children, symptom profiles changed with age. Four PLI children from Study 1 and one from Study 2 met criteria for autistic disorder on both parental report (ADI-R or SCQ) and ADOS-G. Many of the others showed some autistic features, but there was a subset of children with pragmatic difficulties who were not diagnosed as having autism or PDDNOS by either instrument. These children tended to use stereotyped language with abnormal intonation/prosody, but they appeared sociable and communicative, had normal nonverbal communication, and showed few abnormalities outside the language/social communication domains.

Conclusions: Presence of pragmatic difficulties in a child with communication problems should prompt the clinician to evaluate autistic symptomatology, but it is dangerous to assume that all children with pragmatic difficulties have autism or PDDNOS.
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Keywords: Autism; PDDNOS; diagnosis; language impairment; pragmatics; semantic-pragmatic disorder

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: University of Oxford, UK

Publication date: 01 October 2002

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