Children With Autism: According to a new study, when mothers talk, infants with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) struggle to listen.

Children With Autism: Do They Find It Hard To Listen To Their Mothers? - New Study Explains

Motherese is a simplified, exaggerated melodic speech used by parents to communicate with infants and young toddlers. A horse is referred to as horsie, a dog is referred to as doggie, and parents are referred to as mama and dada. The proclivity to speak in such short sing-song phrases is shared by all cultures.

‘Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) do not pay attention to motherese speech. This demonstrates the importance of developing additional diagnostic tools and biomarkers for the early detection of autism spectrum disorder.’

Previous research has shown that infants prefer to listen to motherese, also known as infant-directed speech, over adult-like speech; that it holds their attention more effectively and is an important source of information for them.

Previous research has shown that infants prefer to listen to motherese, also known as infant-directed speech, over adult-like speech because it better holds their attention, is an important component of emotional bonding, and fosters learning experiences between child and parents.

A reduced response to motherese speech and difficulties with sustained attention to social information in general are early signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children. Researchers at the University of California San Diego School of Medicine used a variety of techniques in a new study published in the journal Nature Human Behavior to pinpoint the regions of the brain responsible for a child’s response to baby talk.

“This new study, which combined cutting-edge brain imaging, eye-tracking, and clinical testing, opens the door to precision medicine in autism,” said senior author Eric Courchesne, PhD, professor of neuroscience at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine.

According to Courchesne, the approach yields new insights into how the brain develops in autistic children in relation to objective information about social preference and social attention.

“We are seeing for the first time what the potential brain impact is for children with autism who fail to pay attention to social information,” he said.

Normally developing infants prefer motherese to other forms of adult speech, and previous research has suggested that their brains process motherese differently than non-speech sounds. However, research on how and why infants with ASD do not consistently respond to motherese speech is limited, as is research on the long-term consequences of “tuning out.”

Courchesne and colleagues at UC San Diego’s Autism Center of Excellence hypothesized that ASD infants and toddlers have delayed development of innately driven neural mechanisms that respond to motherese. They conducted a series of tests involving 200 datasets from 71 toddlers and 41 datasets from 14 adults to investigate.

  • Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) of sleeping toddlers, they measured brain activity to motherese and other forms of social affective speech.
  • They conducted clinical assessments of social and language development.
  • They utilized eye-tracking technology to measure responses to females speaking motherese versus non-speech computer sounds and images.
  • Earlier research at UC San Diego and elsewhere has shown that toddlers with ASD show less interest in social activities and stimuli that would normally attract a young child’s attention, such as watching other children play, sing or dance.

Individual differences in early-age social and language development were found to be correlated with a child’s neural responses to speech, and ASD infants and toddlers with the poorest neural responses to motherese also displayed the most severe social symptoms, the poorest language outcomes, and the greatest impairment of behavioral preference and attention toward motherese.

Infants and toddlers with typical development, on the other hand, exhibited the strongest neural responses and affinity to motherese.

They confirmed their findings by correlating eye-gaze patterns to neural and behavioral responses using a computational precision medicine method for integrating data called similarity network fusion.

The superior temporal cortex, a region of the brain that processes sounds and language, responded weaker to motherese and emotion speech in ASD children, who also had the worst social abilities and the worst eye-tracking attention to motherese.

Typically developing children, on the other hand, demonstrated a strong superior temporal neural response to motherese and emotion speech. According to eye-tracking, a small number of toddlers with ASD showed significant brain activation and interest in motherese speech.

“Our conclusion is that lack of behavioral attention to motherese speech in ASD involves impaired development of innate temporal cortical neural systems that normally would automatically respond to parental emotional speech,” said study co-author Karen Pierce, PhD, professor of neurosciences at the University of California, San Diego School of Medicine and co-director of the Autism Center of Excellence with Courchesne.

“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, it suggests that these particular toddlers with autism, a newly discovered and important subgroup, are likely to have good outcomes.” Second, it suggests a novel treatment approach.

According to the authors, their findings, which are based on data-driven, empirical evidence, may be useful in developing additional diagnostic tools and biomarkers for early detection of ASD, as well as in better understanding how ASD affects toddlers in widely and dramatically different ways [ 1]


Yaqiong Xiao, Teresa H. Wen, Lisa Eyler, Disha Goel, and Nathan E. Lewis, all from UC San Diego, are co-authors, as are Lauren Kupis from the University of Miami, Keith Vaux from the UC San Diego Health Physician Network, and Michael V. Lombardo from the Instituto Italiano di Tecnologia and the University of Cambridge.

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