Date of Award

Spring 5-10-2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy in Clinical Psychology (PhD)


Clinical Psychology

First Advisor/Committee Member

Beverly J. Wilson

Second Advisor/Committee Member

Lynette Bikos

Third Advisor/Committee Member

Beau Reilly


All children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) present with some form of impairment in social communication. Social cognitive learning theory suggests children’s early joint attention skills provide a foundation for future language development. Preliminary research suggests social cognitive behaviors such as joint attention in the context of parent scaffolding may serve as a mechanism for language development in children with ASD. The current study utilized a parent-child free play task to explore the relations among parent and child attention and responsivity and child pragmatic language in 26 children ages 3:1 to 6:11 and their parents. Parent supported joint attention was assessed during a parent child free-play task. Pragmatic language ability was assessed by the Comprehensive Assessment of Spoken Language (CASL; Carrow-Woolfolk, 1999). Developmental status significantly predicted child’s pragmatic language score while controlling for overall verbal ability, F(2, 23) = 6.37, p = 0.01, ΔR2 = .15. Developmental status was not a significant predictor of parent supported joint attention, F(1, 24) = 1.09, p = 0.31, indicating that regardless of developmental status there was no significant difference in the percentage of time parents and children spent in parent supported joint attention. Children with autism spectrum disorders initiated joint attention with their parents (M = 0.28) about half as much as their typically developing peers (M = 0.55). Post hoc analyses indicated for children with ASD in this current study, initiation of joint attention was significantly correlated to child RJA, r = 0.60, p = 0.04, suggesting that child with ASD who initiate joint attention with their parents also spend a larger amount of time responding to their parent’s bids for joint attention. The interaction between developmental status and child RJA was also significant, F = 6.16, p =.02, ΔR2 = .13, indicating that for children with ASD, responsiveness to their parent’s bids for joint attention of their parents plays a significant role for their pragmatic language ability in comparison to children with typically development. Collectively, the nature of these findings provides evidence for supporting social cognition in children with autism.

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