When mom talks, are infants with ASD listening?

Mom and toddler

An early sign of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children is a reduced response to motherese speech and challenges in sustained attention to social information in general. new study, which combined state-of-the-art brain imaging, eye-tracking and clinical testing, opens the door toward precision medicine in ASD.

Motherese is a form of simplified, exaggerated melodic speech that parents use to communicate with newborns and young toddlers. A horse becomes horsie; a dog becomes doggie; parents become mama and dada. The tendency to speak in such short sing-song phrases is universal across cultures.

Previous research has shown that infants prefer to listen to motherese, more formally known as infant-directed speech, over adult-like speech; that it more effectively holds their attention and is an important component of emotional bonding and fosters learning experiences between child and parents. For the first time, researcher are seeing what the possible brain impact is for children with autism who fail to pay attention to social information and may have trouble with regular family activities.. 

Typically developing infants prefer motherese to other forms of adult speech, and previous studies have suggested their brains may process motherese differently from non-speech sounds. But research is scant regarding how and why infants with ASD do not consistently respond to motherese speech and what the long-term consequences might be when they “tune out.”

Researchers found that individual differences in early-age social and language development correlated with a child’s neural responses to speech, and that ASD infants and toddlers with the poorest neural responses to motherese also displayed the most severe social symptoms, poorest language outcomes and greatest impairment of behavioral preference and attention toward motherese. Conversely, infants and toddlers with typical development showed the strongest neural responses and affinity to motherese.

The fact that a few children with autism did show strong brain activation and good attention to motherese speech is encouraging for two reasons: First, because it suggests that these particular toddlers with autism are likely to have good outcomes, a newly discovered and important subgroup. And second, it suggests a novel avenue for treatment. The authors said their findings, based upon data-driven, empirical evidence, may be useful in developing further diagnostic tools and biomarkers for early identification of ASD and in further clarifying how ASD affects toddlers in widely and dramatically different ways.

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