Background Marshall-Smith syndrome (MSS) is an infrequently described entity characterised by failure to thrive, developmental delay, abnormal bone maturation and a characteristic face. In studying the physical features of a group of patients, we noticed unusual behavioural traits. This urged us to study cognition, behavioural phenotype and autism in six patients. Methods Information on development, behavioural characteristics, autism symptoms, and adaptive and psychological functioning of six MSS children was collected through in-person examinations, questionnaires, semi-structured interviews of parents and neuropsychological assessments. Results Participants showed moderate to severe delays in mental age, motor development and adaptive functioning, with several similarities in communication, social interactions and behaviour. There was severe delay of speech and motor milestones, a friendly or happy demeanour and enjoyment of social interactions with familiar others. They exhibited minimal maladaptive behaviours. Deficits in communication and social interactions, lack of reciprocal social communication skills, limited imaginary play and the occurrence of stereotyped, repetitive behaviours were noted during assessments. Conclusions Systematic collection of developmental and behavioural data in very rare entities such as MSS allows recognition of specific patterns in these qualities. Clinical recognition of physical,developmental and behavioural features is important not only for diagnosis, prognosis and counselling of families, but also increases our understanding of the biological basis of the human physical and behavioural phenotype. © 2011 The Authors. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research © 2011 Blackwell Publishing Ltd.