Within-task variability on standardized language tests predicts autism spectrum disorder: a pilot study of the Response Dispersion Index

Abby E. Hare-Harris, Marissa W. Mitchel, Scott M. Myers, Aaron D. Mitchel, Brian R. King, Brittany G. Ruocco, Christa Lese Martin, Judy F. Flax, Linda M. Brzustowicz

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle


BACKGROUND: Qualitatively atypical language development characterized by non-sequential skill acquisition within a developmental domain, which has been called developmental deviance or difference, is a common characteristic of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). We developed the Response Dispersion Index (RDI), a measure of this phenomenon based on intra-subtest scatter of item responses on standardized psychometric assessments, to assess the within-task variability among individuals with language impairment (LI) and/or ASD. METHODS: Standard clinical assessments of language were administered to 502 individuals from the New Jersey Language and Autism Genetics Study (NJLAGS) cohort. Participants were divided into four diagnostic groups: unaffected, ASD-only, LI-only, and ASD + LI. For each language measure, RDI was defined as the product of the total number of test items and the sum of the weight (based on item difficulty) of test items missed. Group differences in RDI were assessed, and the relationship between RDI and ASD diagnosis among individuals with LI was investigated for each language assessment. RESULTS: Although standard scores were unable to distinguish the LI-only and ASD/ASD + LI groups, the ASD/ASD + LI groups had higher RDI scores compared to LI-only group across all measures of expressive, pragmatic, and metalinguistic language. RDI was positively correlated with quantitative ASD traits across all subgroups and was an effective predictor of ASD diagnosis among individuals with LI. CONCLUSIONS: The RDI is an effective quantitative metric of developmental deviance/difference that correlates with ASD traits, supporting previous associations between ASD and non-sequential skill acquisition. The RDI can be adapted to other clinical measures to investigate the degree of difference that is not captured by standard performance summary scores.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Number of pages1
JournalJournal of neurodevelopmental disorders
Issue number1
StatePublished - Sep 13 2019
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Pediatrics, Perinatology, and Child Health
  • Pathology and Forensic Medicine
  • Clinical Neurology
  • Cognitive Neuroscience


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Developmental difference
  • Intra-subtest scatter
  • Language impairment

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