Background: Minimally verbal (MV) children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are often assumed to be profoundly cognitively impaired and excluded from analyses due to challenges completing standardized testing protocols. A literature aimed at increasing understanding of this subgroup is emerging; however, the many methods used to define MV status make it difficult to compare studies. Understanding how different instruments and definitions used to identify MV children affect sample composition is critical to advance research on this understudied clinical population.
Method: The MV status of 1,470 school-aged children was defined using five instruments commonly used in ASD research. MV sample composition was compared across instruments. Analyses examined the proportion of overlap across MV subgroups and the extent to which child characteristics varied across MV subgroups defined using different definitions or combinations of measures.
Results: A total of 257 children were classified as MV on at least one instrument. Proportion of overlap between definitions ranged from 3% to 100%. The stringency of definition (i.e. few-to-no vs. some words) was associated with differences in cognitive and adaptive functioning; more stringent definitions yielded greater consistency of MV status across instruments. Cognitive abilities ranged from profoundly impaired to average intelligence; 16% had NVIQ ≥ 70. Approximately half exhibited verbal skills commensurate with nonverbal cognitive ability, whereas half had verbal abilities significantly lower than their estimated NVIQ.
Conclusions: Future studies of MV children must carefully consider the methods used to identify their sample, acknowledging that definitions including children with 'some words' may yield larger samples with a wider range of language and cognitive abilities. Broadly defined MV samples may be particularly important to delineate factors interfering with language development in the subgroup of children whose expressive impairments are considerably below their estimated nonverbal cognitive abilities.
Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; cognitive impairment; language disorder.
© 2016 Association for Child and Adolescent Mental Health.