Background: Increasing numbers of children are referred to Child and Adolescent Mental Health Services because of disruptive behaviour. Recent reviews on the origins of conduct problems indicate that the most severe and persistent forms are found predominantly among males with a range of neurodevelopmental vulnerabilities, which are likely to have biological substrates. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that many children who are identified with conduct disorder actually have a primary deficit in pragmatic language skills, of a quality and degree that is similar to children on the autistic spectrum. We hypothesised that pragmatic difficulties may underlie the antisocial behaviour in a proportion of children who are labelled as conduct disordered.
Methods: Using the Children's Communication Checklist (Bishop, 1998), we surveyed 142 children who had been referred for clinical investigation, with a predominant diagnosis of either an autistic spectrum condition (n = 87) or conduct disorder (n = 55), and 60 typically developing comparison children. Among children with conduct disorders, males predominated 9:1.
Results: On the basis of parent and teacher ratings, two-thirds of those with conduct disorders had pragmatic language impairments and other behavioural features similar in nature and degree to those of children with autism, independent of IQ. In a further study, we surveyed 54 children who had been excluded from elementary schools in a socio-economically disadvantaged inner-London borough and found over two-thirds to have comparable deficits.
Conclusions: These findings have both theoretical and practical implications. First, they indicate the presence of communicative problems in a sub-group of children in whom conduct rather than language had been the major concern. Second, they indicate that severe deficits in pragmatic abilities and autistic-like behaviours can coexist with psychiatric conditions other than autism, especially in boys. Third, they imply that the management of many disruptive children could profitably be addressed to ameliorating their social and communicative skill deficits.
Copyright 2004 Association for Child Psychology and Psychiatry