Bias in measurement of autism symptoms by spoken language level and non-verbal mental age in minimally verbal children with neurodevelopmental disorders

Shuting Zheng, Aaron Kaat, Cristan Farmer, Audrey Thurm, Catherine A. Burrows, Stephen Kanne, Stelios Georgiades, Amy Esler, Catherine Lord, Nicole Takahashi, Kerri P. Nowell, Elizabeth Will, Jane Roberts, Somer L. Bishop

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Increasing numbers of children with known genetic conditions and/or intellectual disability are referred for evaluation of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), highlighting the need to refine autism symptom measures to facilitate differential diagnoses in children with cognitive and language impairments. Previous studies have reported decreased specificity of ASD screening and diagnostic measures in children with intellectual disability. However, little is known about how cognitive and language abilities impact the measurement of specific ASD symptoms in this group. We aggregated a large sample of young children (N = 1196; aged 31–119 months) to examine measurement invariance of ASD symptoms among minimally verbal children within the context of the Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule (ADOS) Module 1. Using confirmatory factor analysis (CFA) and moderated non-linear factor analysis (MNLFA), we examined how discrete behaviors were differentially associated with the latent symptom domains of social communication impairments (SCI) and restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRB) across spoken language levels and non-verbal mental age groupings. While the two-factor structure of SCI and RRB held consistently across language and cognitive levels, only partial invariance was observed for both ASD symptom domains of SCI and RRB. Specifically, four out of the 15 SCI items and one out of the three RRB items examined showed differential item functioning between children with “Few to No Words” and those with “Some Words”; and one SCI item and one RRB item showed differential item functioning across non-verbal mental age groups. Moreover, even after adjusting for the differential item functioning to reduce measurement bias across groups, there were still differences in ASD symptom domain scores across spoken language levels. These findings further underscore the influence of spoken language level on measurement of ASD symptoms and the importance of measuring ASD symptoms within refined spoken language levels, even among those with minimal verbal abilities.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number927847
JournalFrontiers in Psychology
StatePublished - Jul 29 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
This work was supported by grants from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD; R01HD093012 to SB).

Publisher Copyright:
Copyright © 2022 Zheng, Kaat, Farmer, Thurm, Burrows, Kanne, Georgiades, Esler, Lord, Takahashi, Nowell, Will, Roberts and Bishop.


  • ADOS
  • autism symptoms
  • language level
  • measurement invariance
  • nonverbal mental age


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