A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

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

Winter, 2022 | Number 1, Volume 36

Study explores the neural roots of different responses to “motherese” by neurotypical children and children with ASD

Most very young children prefer “motherese”—the simplified, exaggerated, melodic speech that mothers typically use to talk to infants and toddlers—over regular speech. However, children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) tend to show a reduced preference for motherese. 

In a new study, Yaqiong Xiao and colleagues investigated the reasons for this difference. The researchers evaluated 71 toddlers and 14 adults with and without ASD, using three approaches: 

• Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans performed while the children were asleep, to measure brain responses to motherese and other forms of social affective speech. 

• Clinical assessments of social and language development. 

• Eye tracking, to measure responses to females speaking motherese versus nonspeech computer sounds and images. 

The researchers found that individual differences in early social and language development correlated with responses in the superior temporal cortex—a brain region that processes sound and language— to motherese. Autistic infants and toddlers with the poorest neural responses to motherese also displayed the most severe social symptoms, poorest language outcomes, and greatest impairment of behavioral preference and attention toward motherese. Conversely, typically developing infants and toddlers showed the strongest neural responses and affinity to motherese. The researchers used a tool called “similarity network fusion” to correlate eye-gaze patterns to neural and behavioral responses, offering further support for their findings. 

“We conclude,” the researchers say, “that significantly reduced behavioral preference for motherese in autism is related to impaired development of temporal cortical systems that normally respond to parental affective speech.” 

Study coauthor Karen Pierce adds, “The fact that a few children with autism did show strong brain activation and good attention to motherese speech is encouraging for two reasons: First, because it suggests that these particular toddlers with autism are likely to have good outcomes, a newly discovered and important subgroup. And second, it suggests a novel avenue for treatment.”


“Neural responses to affective speech, including motherese, map onto clinical and social eye tracking profiles in toddlers with ASD,” Yaqiong Xiao, Teresa H. Wen, Lauren Kupis, Lisa T. Eyler, Disha Goel, Keith Vaux, Michael V. Lombardo, Nathan E. Lewis, Karen Pierce, and Eric Courchesne, Nature Human Behavior, January 3, 2022 (online). Address: Yaqiong Xiao, Autism Center of Excellence, Department of Neurosciences, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093, [email protected]


“When mom talks, are infants with ASD listening?”, news release, University of California San Diego, January 3, 2022.