A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Winter, 2023 | Number 1, Volume 37

New research adds to evidence of unusual responses to “motherese” by toddlers with ASD

A new study adds to evidence that an unusual response to “motherese”—the playful, exaggerated form of speech often used by mothers when talking to infants—may help to identify toddlers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). 

Karen Pierce and colleagues used eye-tracking technology to evaluate 653 toddlers, all between 12 and 48 months of age. The children were presented with two short videos, shown side by side: one of a woman speaking in motherese, and another of either a busy highway or abstract shapes with accompanying electronic music. The direction of the toddlers’ gaze determined the amount of time each video played. 

The researchers found that toddlers without ASD consistently showed a great deal of interest in the “motherese” video, spending approximately 80 percent of their time watching this video. Toddlers diagnosed with ASD were far less consistent, with their fixation on the “motherese” video ranging from 0 to 100 percent of the time. The subset of toddlers who fixated on motherese less than 30 percent of the time could be accurately identified as having ASD via this measurement alone. Toddlers who had ASD but still spent most of their time paying attention to the “motherese” video exhibited greater social and language abilities than toddlers with ASD who were less attentive.

 Pierce comments, “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 three or four. 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.” In addition, the researchers say, eye-tracking tests might help to uncover biological subtypes of ASD. 

The new research expands on an earlier study by the same researchers (see ARRI 2022, No. 1) In that brain imaging study, toddlers with ASD who showed the lowest levels of attention to motherese speech also showed the lowest levels of neural functional activation in speech-processing regions and exhibited lower language abilities than toddlers who paid greater attention to motherese speech. Conversely, typically developing infants and toddlers showed the strongest neural responses and affinity to motherese.


Citations

“Association between ultrasonography fetal anomalies and autism spectrum disorder,” Ohad Regev, Amnon Hadar, Gal Meiri, Hagit Flusser, Analya Michaelovski, Ilan Dinstein, Reli Hersh- kovitz, and Idan Menashe, Brain, January 17, 2022 (online). Address: Idan Menashe, Department of Public Health, Faculty of Health Sciences, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Beer Sheva 8410501, Israel, [email protected]

—and—

“Routine prenatal ultrasound can identify early signs of autism,” news release, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, February 9, 2022.