Teasing Out Specific Language Impairment From an Autism Spectrum Disorder
CASE: Marcus is a handsome, sweet, 7½-year-old boy with a significant history of delayed development, specifically in speech and language skills, as well as difficulties with social interactions that have led other specialists to be concerned about a diagnosis of an autism spectrum disorder. He has been seen in our primary care practice since birth. He was born full-term after vaginal delivery weighing 6 pounds, 6 ounces. There were no pregnancy or delivery complications noted. Genetic testing revealed normal chromosomes, fragile X, and microarray testing. Marcus was a picky eater and good sleeper and had delays in toilet training. There is no family history of attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism, or substance abuse. Maternal grandmother and mother have a history of learning difficulties, and his father and a paternal uncle have a history of depression and anxiety. Marcus lives in a supportive environment with his mother, father, and sister. Marcus was noted to have significantly delayed language, stuttering, and immediate echolalia as a toddler. Gross and fine motor milestones were met on time, but he did not talk or follow directions until 4 to 5 years old. As a younger child, he would pretend to talk on the phone or mow the grass with a pretend lawn mower, but other household activities were not of interest to Marcus. Currently, he enjoys puzzles, reading, and board games. He likes to play with other children and can interact with familiar adults. Marcus is reported to initiate social interactions, although he has difficulty in understanding personal space. Imaginative play is preferred over other types. He seeks out adult attention and will bring objects over to an adult especially to share his perceived accomplishment. Marcus has difficulty in playing cooperatively with his sister. He is independent with activities of daily living. Marcus is noted to have auditory defensiveness including covering his ears to loud noises and becoming distressed. Parents feel he is immature and inattentive for his age. Marcus responds well when a routine is followed. Previous testing about 2 years ago revealed significant language deficits on the Clinical Evaluation of Language Functioning with average scores on the Woodcock Johnson Achievement Testing and Test of Nonverbal Intelligence Version 3. Marcus was not referred for early intervention and he did not attend preschool. In a regular education Kindergarten, he received speech and occupational therapy along with reading and math support. Comments from teachers or evaluator include the following: Marcus looked to his peers for clues about what he should be doing. Marcus has great difficulty in understanding requests but seems to be interested in pleasing his teacher and others. Marcus' language difficulty makes socialization with his peers problematic; however, he is interested in interacting with them and they seem to accept him willingly. Marcus has intent to communicate with others but relies on visual support to decipher social situations. Marcus has difficulty in attending to details and moves from activity to activity quickly. His short attention span is likely impacting not only learning but also his ability to socially interact with peers. On the day you see him for his 7-year-old checkup, he brought many toys over to show his father and interrupted your conversation to get your attention intermittently throughout the examination. He immediately pointed out a lit ceiling tile with Nemo illuminated to show his father. Marcus does not have any notable or significant repetitive motor mannerisms or stereotypies reported or observed. Marcus' gesture use was appropriate for age and included both symbolic (directing eye gaze and pointing) and concrete (hands up to be picked up and touching an item rather than pointing to it) gestures. Play observed today, although immature for age, was novel, imaginative, and functional. Answers to questions did not always match the question posed. He had a difficult time waiting for his turn before interrupting a conversation. Visual cues were helpful in understanding what was expected of him and what was going on socially. Marcus' speech is notable for persistent stuttering and difficulty in turn-taking in conversation. He gets frustrated easily and has a hard time being understood. He continues to confuse pronouns and makes some grammatical errors. He is able to follow simple directions but has a hard time following complex or multistep directions with accuracy. Nonverbal communication includes pointing to objects of interest in order to share the experience (“Look mom!”). He will point to identify an object and can follow a point across the room. He is able to use his eye contact to direct yours to moderate social interactions. Marcus has a special interest in Thomas the Tank Engine Train and Disney movies but is able to move away from those topics to engage in other play interests. Repetitive behaviors are not noted. Toe walking, hand flapping, or spinning, or unusual hand motions or observation of objects were not observed. Difficulties noted today include delays in his receptive and expressive language, poor intelligibility, dysfluency, and impaired motor planning. He recently underwent an audiogram which was normal. You decide to refer to a specialist for further evaluation.