Atypical development of language and social communication in toddlers with Williams syndrome

Emma Laing, George Butterworth, Daniel Ansari, Marisa Gsödl, Elena Longhi, Georgia Panagiotaki, Sarah Paterson, Annette Skarmiloff-Smith

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Williams syndrome (WS) is a genetic disorder which results in an uneven cognitive profile. Despite superior language compared to other syndromes in the phenotypic outcome, toddlers with WS are as delayed in their language onset and early linguistic development as are toddlers with other syndromes. The cause of this delay in WS is as yet unknown. In a series of experiments, we examined whether atypical socio-interactive precursors to language could contribute to the explanation of the late language onset and atypical developmental pathways observed in WS. Experiment 1 showed that despite superficially good social skills, toddlers with WS were only proficient at dyadic interaction. They were impaired in triadic interaction, essential for the referential uses of language, and showed none of the correlations between socio-interactive markers and language seen in the typical controls. Experiment 2 focused on the comprehension and production of referential pointing. Again, the WS group was impaired, despite vocabulary levels higher than those of typically developing controls. Finally, Experiment 3 examined fine motor skills. The WS lack of pointing could not be explained in terms of motor impairments, since the WS toddlers were proficient at fine motor control, such as the pincer grip. Overall, our data indicate that the early stages of WS language follow an atypical pathway. The findings challenge the frequent claims in the literature that individuals with Williams syndrome have preserved linguistic and social skills.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)233-246
Number of pages14
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - May 2002

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