This study investigated social attention impairments in autism (social orienting, joint attention, and attention to another's distress) and their relations to language ability. Three- to four-year-old children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD; n = 72), 3- to 4-year-old developmentally delayed children (n = 34), and 12- to 46-month-old typically developing children (n = 39), matched on mental age, were compared on measures of social orienting, joint attention, and attention to another's distress. Children with autism performed significantly worse than the comparison groups in all of these domains. Combined impairments in joint attention and social orienting were found to best distinguish young children with ASD from those without ASD. Structural equation modeling indicated that joint attention was the best predictor of concurrent language ability. Social orienting and attention to distress were indirectly related to language through their relations with joint attention. These results help to clarify the nature of social attention impairments in autism, offer clues to developmental mechanisms, and suggest targets for early intervention.