Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show deficits in reporting others’ emotions (Lartseva et al. in Front Hum Neurosci 8:991, 2015) and in deriving meaning in social contexts (Klin et al. in Handbook of autism and pervasive developmental disorders, Wiley, Hoboken, 2005). However, researchers often use stimuli that conflate salient emotional and social information. Using a matched-pairs design, the impact of emotional and social information on emotional language in pre-school and school-age children, with and without ASD, was assessed with a picture description task comprising rated stimuli from the Pictures with Social Contexts and Emotional Scenes database (Teh et al. in Behav Res Methods, https://doi.org/10.3758/s13428-017-0947-x, 2017). Results showed both groups with ASD produced fewer emotional terms than typically developing children, but the effects were moderated by valence, social engagement, and age. Implications for theory and clinical practice are discussed.