When communicating with babies, we instinctively employ an exaggerated, somewhat rhythmic method of speaking to establish a bond and at the same time capture their ever-fleeting attention. Now, a new study conducted by researchers from the University of California has revealed that this form of communication actually does a lot more than most people realize.
Their research published in the JAMA Network Open journal revealed that motherese or ‘baby talk’ as it is so commonly called, can be used to identify likely autistic children long before symptoms start to appear.
According to the study, toddlers who pay limited attention to baby talk from parents or caregivers have a high chance of receiving an Autism Syndrome Disorder (ASD) diagnosis further down the line.
One of the defining traits of autistic patients is difficulty with communication and social interactions, and although in some cases the diagnosis can come as early as 18 months, symptoms don’t usually appear until around 3-4 years of age. With this system of diagnosis, the study authors believe autism symptoms can be spotted much earlier; allowing early intervention which increases the odds of positive treatment.
“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 study corresponding author Karen Pierce, Ph.D., who is also a professor of neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine and co-director of the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence.
To arrive at their findings, the authors subjected 653 toddlers aged between 12 and 48 months to three different models of an eye-tracking test.
Each child was made to choose between watching a 60-second clip of a woman speaking in motherese and another 60-second clip of traffic noises, then abstract shapes and numbers, and finally the same woman as before speaking in a flat and regular tone.
In each case, the toddlers used their gaze to determine which of the clips played more.
The experiment revealed that the participants without ASD were far more interested in the movie with motherese speech as they spent an average of 80 percent of their time fixated on it. On the other hand, children diagnosed with ASD were focused more on movies showing busy highways, abstract shapes, and electronic music with some 100 percent fixated on them.
When a benchmark of 30 percent of fixation or less was used, every toddler who fell into this range had received an ASD diagnosis with high accuracy.
Also, a subset of toddlers who had received an ASD diagnosis but still spent most of the time on the parentese clips showed greater social and language skills—demonstrating the diversity amongst children with ASD.