Well-Being Mental Health

Lower attention to ‘motherese’ may help diagnose autism early

A study of toddlers finds that level of attentiveness to the audio playback may be an indicator of language and social challenges later on.
young child sitting on bed facing away at a TV holding a remote controller

Story at a glance

  • Hundreds of toddlers watched videos of a woman speaking in a playful style next to videos of traffic or techno.

  • Researchers measured how much they paid attention to the woman.

  • Using such tests could allow for better diagnoses of children with autism.

Lower levels of attention to infant-directed speech, also known as “motherese” or “parentese,” by toddlers could be an early indicator of autism spectrum disorder, according to a study published in the journal JAMA Network Open.

Researchers observed more than 600 toddlers in eye-tracking tests during side-by-side playback of videos with an actress speaking in parentese next to a video with traffic noise or techno music. They also conducted a version of the test showing two videos of the same actress, one where she spoke in parentese and one where she spoke with flat intonations.

The team measured the percentage of time the toddler was visually fixated on the person speaking parentese and found that toddlers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) ranged from 0 to 100 percent fixation, compared to median values of about 83 and 81 percent fixation in toddlers without ASD on the traffic and techno tests.

Many of the toddlers with ASD paid attention to the videos of parentese. However, nearly a quarter of toddlers with ASD showed low levels of attention, some as low as 1 or 2 percent.

In addition, the toddlers with ASD and a percent fixation rate below the threshold of 30 percent were consistently diagnosed with ASD using a separate assessment.

These children also had lower social and language abilities. On the other hand, children with ASD but who had high attention levels on the tests scored higher on expressive language assessments.

The authors state that using such attention tests could help differentiate among children who have ASD and may serve as an early indicator for certain types of ASD screening related to language and social skills.

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