Quantifying latent social motivation and its associations with joint attention and language in infants at high and low likelihood for autism spectrum disorder

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Social motivation—the psychobiological predisposition for social orienting, seeking social contact, and maintaining social interaction—manifests in early infancy and is hypothesized to be foundational for social communication development in typical and atypical populations. However, the lack of infant social-motivation measures has hindered delineation of associations between infant social motivation, other early-arising social abilities such as joint attention, and language outcomes. To investigate how infant social motivation contributes to joint attention and language, this study utilizes a mixed longitudinal sample of 741 infants at high (HL = 515) and low (LL = 226) likelihood for ASD. Using moderated nonlinear factor analysis (MNLFA), we incorporated items from parent-report measures to establish a novel latent factor model of infant social motivation that exhibits measurement invariance by age, sex, and familial ASD likelihood. We then examined developmental associations between 6- and 12-month social motivation, joint attention at 12–15 months, and language at 24 months of age. On average, greater social-motivation growth from 6–12 months was associated with greater initiating joint attention (IJA) and trend-level increases in sophistication of responding to joint attention (RJA). IJA and RJA were both positively associated with 24-month language abilities. There were no additional associations between social motivation and future language in our path model. These findings substantiate a novel, theoretically driven approach to modeling social motivation and suggest a developmental cascade through which social motivation impacts other foundational skills. These findings have implications for the timing and nature of intervention targets to support social communication development in infancy. Highlights: We describe a novel, theoretically based model of infant social motivation wherein multiple parent-reported indicators contribute to a unitary latent social-motivation factor. Analyses revealed social-motivation factor scores exhibited measurement invariance for a longitudinal sample of infants at high and low familial ASD likelihood. Social-motivation growth from ages 6–12 months is associated with better 12−15-month joint attention abilities, which in turn are associated with greater 24-month language skills. Findings inform timing and targets of potential interventions to support healthy social communication in the first year of life.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere13336
JournalDevelopmental Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - May 2023


  • autism
  • infancy
  • joint attention
  • language
  • social motivation


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