Quantifying latent social motivation and its associations with joint attention and language in infants at high and low likelihood for autism spectrum disorder

for the IBIS Network, Casey Burrows

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

2 Scopus citations


Social motivation—the psychobiological predisposition for social orienting, seeking social contact, and maintaining social interaction—manifests in early infancy and is hypothesized to be foundational for social communication development in typical and atypical populations. However, the lack of infant social-motivation measures has hindered delineation of associations between infant social motivation, other early-arising social abilities such as joint attention, and language outcomes. To investigate how infant social motivation contributes to joint attention and language, this study utilizes a mixed longitudinal sample of 741 infants at high (HL = 515) and low (LL = 226) likelihood for ASD. Using moderated nonlinear factor analysis (MNLFA), we incorporated items from parent-report measures to establish a novel latent factor model of infant social motivation that exhibits measurement invariance by age, sex, and familial ASD likelihood. We then examined developmental associations between 6- and 12-month social motivation, joint attention at 12–15 months, and language at 24 months of age. On average, greater social-motivation growth from 6–12 months was associated with greater initiating joint attention (IJA) and trend-level increases in sophistication of responding to joint attention (RJA). IJA and RJA were both positively associated with 24-month language abilities. There were no additional associations between social motivation and future language in our path model. These findings substantiate a novel, theoretically driven approach to modeling social motivation and suggest a developmental cascade through which social motivation impacts other foundational skills. These findings have implications for the timing and nature of intervention targets to support social communication development in infancy. Highlights: We describe a novel, theoretically based model of infant social motivation wherein multiple parent-reported indicators contribute to a unitary latent social-motivation factor. Analyses revealed social-motivation factor scores exhibited measurement invariance for a longitudinal sample of infants at high and low familial ASD likelihood. Social-motivation growth from ages 6–12 months is associated with better 12−15-month joint attention abilities, which in turn are associated with greater 24-month language skills. Findings inform timing and targets of potential interventions to support healthy social communication in the first year of life.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article numbere13336
Pages (from-to)e13336
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number3
Early online dateOct 12 2022
StateE-pub ahead of print - Oct 12 2022

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
The authors would like to thank all the children and families who participated in this study as well as the staff at the various IBIS sites and cores. This material is partially based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF‐GRF) to I. Stallworthy (00074041) and support from the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) to N. Marrus (K08MH112891). This study was made possible by NIH grants to J. Pruett and J. Piven (R01 MH118362, MH118362‐02S1); a Biobehavioral Research Award for Innovative New Scientists (R01 MH104324) to J. Elison; an NIH Autism Center for Excellence (ACE) Network grant (R01 HD055741) to J. Piven; grants from Autism Speaks (#6020) and the Simons Foundation (#140209) to J. Piven; as well as U54 Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Centers HD079124 to UNC (J. Piven); HD087011 to Washington University (J. Constantino); HD86984 to CHOP (R. Shultz); and HD083091 to the University of Washington (M. Guralnick). The funders had no role in study design, data collection, analysis, data interpretation, or the writing of the report.

Publisher Copyright:
© 2022 The Authors. Developmental Science published by John Wiley & Sons Ltd.


  • autism
  • infancy
  • joint attention
  • language
  • social motivation


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