Baby talk could help spot autism years before symptoms begin

SAN DIEGO — Baby talk could help spot autism years before symptoms begin, new research reveals. Parents often use playful, emotional, and exaggerated tones –which scientists also call “motherese” or “parentese” — to capture a child’s attention. Now, study authors find it opens the door to identifying behavioral problems when therapy works best.

Eye-tracking tests showed those who did not respond to baby talk had weaker social and language abilities.

“We know the earlier we can introduce treatment, the more effective it is likely to be, but most children don’t get a formal diagnosis until around age 3 or 4,” says corresponding author Karen Pierce, PhD, professor of neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine and co-director of the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence, in a media release. “There is a real need for easy and effective diagnostic tools that can be used on young children, and eye-tracking is a great place to start.”

The study in JAMA Network Open offers hope of developing a screening program before autism symptoms emerge. In experiments, researchers exposed 653 children between one and two years-old to a pair of one-minute videos featuring a woman speaking parentese or abstract scenes. Their eyes controlled which one played.

Rapid eye-tracking test produces ‘really remarkable’ results

Participants without ASD (autism spectrum disorder) showed consistently high interest in baby talk, spending an average 80 percent of the time watching it. They largely ignored the latter, which showed a busy highway, abstract shapes, and numbers, and had accompanying electronic music. However, fixation levels of peers diagnosed with ASD spanned the full range of concentration levels, some focusing 100 percent on the random images.

A group who fixated parentese less than 30 percent of the time could be accurately identified as having ASD through this measurement alone. These children also showed lower scores on subsequent tests of language and social skills. Toddlers who had ASD but still spent a majority of the time paying attention to parentese displayed greater social and language abilities, highlighting the diversity within the ASD population.

Whether less attention to parentese is the cause of reduced sociability or merely a symptom is still unclear. However, it appears to be a highly accurate biomarker for a subtype of the condition, the team notes.

“The fact that we can reliably identify children with autism using such a simple and rapid eye-tracking test is really remarkable,” Pierce says. “In the future, we hope to use a child’s attention to motherese as a clue for which treatments they may most benefit from, and as a tool for measuring how well those treatments work.”

Children with ASD have problems with communicating, social interaction, and are prone to repetitive behaviors. Most cases do not receive a formal diagnosis until after the age of four, meaning therapy starts later — delaying their potential impact.

Baby talk can stimulate a child’s mind

Studies have shown baby talk stimulates children’s attention and learning, helping them develop language skills and emotional reactivity. It is characterized by higher and wider pitch, slower speech rate, and a “sing song” pattern of intonation that differentiates it from the more monotone style used when adults speak normally.

Parents use normal language but make it simpler by repeating words and speaking slower. They also exaggerate facial expressions, opening their mouth wider, raising eyebrows, and smiling a lot. Scientists claim talking to babies gives them advantages in life far beyond a larger vocabulary. They say chatting to infants under the age of one helps them make friends, as well as making them brighter because they are better able to discover the world around them faster.

If autistic toddlers do not pay as much attention to this speech style, it might affect their social skills later in life. The eye-tracking test could be beneficial for early ASD screening, diagnosis and prognosis, and help clinicians identify which treatments would be most useful for the child.

South West News Service writer Mark Waghorn contributed to this report.

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