Language skills and social contact among students with intellectual disabilities in special needs schools

Elsevier, Learning, Culture and Social Interaction, Volume 30, September 2021
Hofmann V., Muller C.M.
Children and adolescents with intellectual disabilities (ID) often have language difficulties. Guided by interactional theories of language acquisition, this study expected that more social contact with peers positively affects language development for this student group. Conversely, it was also hypothesized that poor language skills predict fewer social contacts with peers, thereby reducing their social inclusion. To test our hypotheses, we studied a sample of 1125 students (aged 4 to 19 years) in 16 Swiss special needs schools, on whom data was collected at the beginning and end of a school year. Social contact was measured as the number of peers at school with whom a student has frequent contact, according to teacher reports. Language skills were measured by teacher ratings of verbal and non-verbal abilities. Results of a cross-lagged multilevel model indicated that greater numbers of social contacts at the beginning of the school year were related to an increase in both verbal and non-verbal language skills. However, better verbal and non-verbal language skills at the beginning of the school year did not predict more social contacts later on. The findings support the assumption that more social contacts among students in special needs schools are conducive to language development.