Objective: The proportion of schoolchildren with mild social communicative deficits far exceeds the number diagnosed with an autistic spectrum disorder (ASD). We aimed to ascertain both the population distribution of such deficits and their association with functional adaptation and cognitive ability in middle childhood.
Method: The parent-report Social and Communication Disorders Checklist was administered to participants (n = 8,094) in the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children. We correlated impairment severity with independent clinical diagnoses of ASD, cognitive abilities, and teacher-rated maladaptive behavior.
Results: Social and Communication Disorders Checklist scores were continuously distributed in the general population; boys had mean scores 30% higher than girls. Social communicative deficits were associated with functional impairment at school, especially in domains of hyperactivity and conduct disorders. A sex-by-verbal IQ interaction effect occurred: verbal IQ was protective against social communication impairments across the range of abilities in female subjects only. In male subjects, this protective effect did not exist for those with above-average verbal IQ.
Conclusions: Social communicative deficits are of prognostic significance, in terms of behavioral adjustment at school, for boys and girls. Their high general population prevalence emphasizes the importance of measuring such traits among clinically referred children who do not meet diagnostic ASD criteria. Above-average verbal IQ seems to confer protection against social communication impairments in female subjects but not in male subjects.