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New Autism study stresses the importance of communicating with infants

Clare Turnbull - September 26th 2019

A new language-skills study that included infants later diagnosed with autism suggests that all children can benefit from exposure to more speech from their parents/ caregivers.

Dr. Meghan Swanson, assistant professor and director of the Infant Neurodevelopment & Language Research Lab at The University of Texas at Dallas, is the corresponding author of the study, published online June 28 in Autism Research. They reported as the first to extend research about the relationship between caregiver speech and infant language development from typically developing children to those with autism.

Dr. Meghan Swanson. Credit: University of Texas at Dallas
Dr. Meghan Swanson. Credit: University of Texas at Dallas

Early intervention, from birth to age 3, has shown to be effective at supporting development in various cohorts of children," said Swanson. There has been a push to identify autism earlier or demonstrate that the same techniques that help most children develop language skills also benefit those eventually diagnosed with autism.

The study involved 96 babies, 60 of whom had an older sibling with autism. Swanson said that this "baby-sibling" research design was necessary as “autism tends to run in families. These younger siblings have about a 20% chance of being diagnosed eventually with autism." Indeed, 14 children from the high-risk subset of 60 were diagnosed with autism at 24 months.

The study results directly tied the number of words an infant hears, as well as the conversational turns he or she takes, to the performance on the 24-month language evaluation—both for typical children and those with autism.

"One conclusion we've come to is that parents should be persistent in talking with their babies even if they aren't getting responses," Swanson said.

The children's interactions with caregivers were recorded over two days—once at nine months and again at 15 months—via a LENA (Language Environment Analysis) audio recorder. The children's language skills were then assessed at 24 months.

"The LENA software counts conversational turns anytime an adult vocalizes and the infant responds, or vice versa," Swanson said. "The definition is not related to the content of the speech, just that the conversation partner responds. We believe that responding to infants when they talk supports infant development, regardless of eventual autism diagnosis."

The project was undertaken by the Infant Brain Imaging Study (IBIS) network, a consortium of eight universities in the United States and Canada funded by the National Institutes of Health as an Autism Center of Excellence. Dr. Joseph Piven, the IBIS network's principal investigator, is the director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities at UNC-Chapel Hill. For parents, the results should highlight the long-term effect of initiating conversations from an early age, he said. 

"Talking to your kids makes a big difference," Piven said. "Any impact on early language skills will almost certainly have an impact on a wide range of later abilities in school-age children and significantly enhance their probability of success."

Swanson said the most important take away from this work is that parents can make a significant difference in language development, even in children who are eventually diagnosed with autism.

"Parents can be amazing agents of change in their infants' lives from as early as 9 months old," she said. "If we teach parents how to provide their children with a rich communication environment, it helps support their children's development. I find that incredibly hopeful—the power that parents have to be these positive role models."

This research supports Dr Stella Acquarone’s pioneering work which identified that signs of autism can be seen in the first year of life. "In my mind there is no doubt that these early signs can be helped a great deal, and the earlier they are discovered, the more they can be helped and treated to the extent that the child can live a 'normal' life. This is something I firmly believe and have been campaigning for over the last 40 years."

Download the report for further information.
Meghan R. Swanson et al. Early language exposure supports later language skills in infants with and without autism, Autism Research(2019)


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Welcome to ourNews, where we keep up-to-date with research and other news related to infant mental health. These articles can be of interest to both parents and professionals.
We are keen to know your views and so please do comment on our articles.
Is there a topic that you would like us to write about? Just send us a message via 'Contact us'.

ourAdvice, our other blog, has brief posts with advice for parents.

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