'Baby talk' could help diagnose autism in toddlers, study says

Feb. 8 (UPI) -- A new study finds toddlers' attention to high-pitched, sing-song speech -- or "baby talk" -- could provide an early diagnosis and treatment of autism spectrum disorder.

The study, published in JAMA Network Open on Wednesday, found lower levels of attention to a playful speech style, called motherese or parentese, could help diagnose language and social challenges in toddlers sooner.


Motherese or parentese speech patterns are characterized by exaggerated intonation, simple grammar, high pitch and slow tempo.

Researchers at the University of California San Diego studied more than 600 toddlers, between the ages of 12 and 48 months, and tracked their eye movement during videos with an actress speaking motherese.

Depending on how long each toddler fixated on the person and the baby talk, researchers were able to determine the likelihood the toddlers would have autism spectrum disorder.

"If a toddler fixated on motherese speech at or below 30%, the probability of that toddler being accurately identified as ASD was 94% and also signified an association with reduced social and language abilities," the study said.

Those toddlers with autism spectrum disorder, who showed the lowest levels of attention to motherese speech and had weaker social and language abilities, were candidates for earlier treatment.


"Insight into which toddlers show unusually low levels of attention to mothers may be beneficial not only for early ASD diagnosis and prognosis but also as a possible therapeutic target," the study said.

"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," corresponding author Dr. Karen Pierce, professor of neurosciences at UC San Diego School of Medicine and co-director of the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence, said in a statement.

Infants prefer to listen to a playful style of speech compared to adult-directed speech for the first days of life, according to a 2013 study out of France which found the speech preference stimulates attention and crosses all cultural and geographical boundaries.

A separate study, by Kuhl and colleagues in 2004, found that 70% of children with ASD preferred listening to computer-generated sounds over motherese.

"The fact that we can reliably identify children with autism using such a simple and rapid eye-tracking test is really remarkable," Pierce said. "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."


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