When mom talks, are infants with ASD listening?

‘Baby talk’ isn’t just cute gibberish, it’s an innate form of early communication and bonding, but in infants and toddlers with autism, research suggests their brains often don’t tune in.

Baby talk between parent and child is an innate form of early communication and bonding, but in infants and toddlers with autism, research suggests their brains may not be getting the message. Venus Fomby photo, Pixy.org

By Scott LaFee, University of California San Diego January 3, 2022

Motherese is a form of simplified, exaggerated melodic speech that parents use to communicate with newborns and young toddlers. A horse becomes horsie; a dog becomes doggie; parents become mama and dada. The tendency to speak in such short sing-song phrases is universal across cultures.

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

An early sign of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in children is a reduced response to motherese speech and challenges in sustained attention to social information in general. In a new study, published January 3, 2022 in the journal Nature Human Behavior, researchers at University of California San Diego School of Medicine employed a number of techniques to pinpoint the regions of the brain responsible for a child’s response to baby talk.

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

Courchesne said the approach generates new insights into how the brain is developing in children with autism related to objective information about social preference and social attention.

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

Typically developing infants prefer motherese to other forms of adult speech, and previous studies have suggested their brains may process motherese differently from non-speech sounds. But research is scant regarding how and why infants with ASD do not consistently respond to motherese speech and what the long-term consequences might be when they “tune out.”

Courchesne, with colleagues at the Autism Center of Excellence at UC San Diego, hypothesized that ASD infants and toddlers experience impaired development of innately driven neural mechanisms that respond to motherese. To investigate, they conducted a series of tests involving 200 datasets from 71 toddlers and 41 datasets from 14 adults:

  • 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.
  • And 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.

The researchers found that individual differences in early-age social and language development correlated with a child’s neural responses to speech, and that ASD 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, infants and toddlers with typical development showed the strongest neural responses and affinity to motherese.

Using a computational precision medicine method for integrating data called similarity network fusion, they correlated eye-gaze patterns to neural and behavioral responses, further confirming their findings.

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

The opposite was true among typically developing children, who displayed strong superior temporal neural response to motherese and emotion speech. A small number of toddlers with ASD showed strong brain activation and interest in motherese speech, as determined by eye-tracking.

“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 UC San Diego School of Medicine and co-director of 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, 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.

The authors said their findings, based upon data-driven, empirical evidence, may be useful in developing further diagnostic tools and biomarkers for early identification of ASD and in further clarifying how ASD affects toddlers in widely and dramatically different ways.

Co-authors include: Yaqiong Xiao, Teresa H. Wen, Lisa Eyler, Disha Goel and Nathan E. Lewis, all at UC San Diego; Lauren Kupis, University of Miami; Keith Vaux, UC San Diego Health Physician Network; and Michael V. Lombardo, Instituto Italiano di Tecnoligia and University of Cambridge.

Funding for this research came, in part, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (grant 1R01DC016385); National Institute of Mental Health (R01MH118879, R01MH104446); and the European Research Council (755816).

Source University of California San Diego via Science Daily


Neural responses to affective speech, including motherese, map onto clinical and social eye tracking profiles in toddlers with ASD, Xiao, Yaqiong; Wen, Teresa H; Kupis, Lauren; Eyler, Lisa T; Goel, Disha; Vaux, Keith; Lombardo, Michael V; Lewis, Nathan E; Pierce, Karen; Courchesne, Eric. Nat Hum Behav (2022). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41562-021-01237-y.

  Further reading

Effectiveness of Screening in Early Intervention Settings to Improve Diagnosis of Autism and Reduce Health Disparities, Sheldrick RC, Carter AS, Eisenhower A, Mackie TI, Cole MB, Hoch N, Brunt S, Pedraza FM. JAMA Pediatr. 2022 Jan 4. doi: 10.1001/jamapediatrics.2021.5380. Epub ahead of print.

Sex/gender differences in the human autistic brains: A systematic review of 20 years of neuroimaging research, Mo K, Sadoway T, Bonato S, Ameis SH, Anagnostou E, Lerch JP, Taylor MJ, Lai MC. Neuroimage Clin. 2021;32:102811. doi: 10.1016/j.nicl.2021.102811. Epub 2021 Sep 3. Full text

Adherence to screening and referral guidelines for autism spectrum disorder in toddlers in pediatric primary care, Wallis KE, Guthrie W, Bennett AE, Gerdes M, Levy SE, Mandell DS, Miller JS. PLoS One. 2020 May 7;15(5):e0232335. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0232335. Full text

The Neurodevelopment of Autism from Infancy Through Toddlerhood, Girault JB, Piven J. Neuroimaging Clin N Am. 2020 Feb;30(1):97-114. doi: 10.1016/j.nic.2019.09.009. Epub 2019 Nov 11. Full text

Default mode-visual network hypoconnectivity in an autism subtype with pronounced social visual engagement difficulties, Lombardo MV, Eyler L, Moore A, Datko M, Carter Barnes C, Cha D, Courchesne E, Pierce K. Elife. 2019 Dec 17;8:e47427. doi: 10.7554/eLife.47427. Full text

Altered social cognition and connectivity of default mode networks in the co-occurrence of autistic spectrum disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Wang K, Xu M, Ji Y, Zhang L, Du X, Li J, Luo Q, Li F. Aust N Z J Psychiatry. 2019 Aug;53(8):760-771. doi: 10.1177/0004867419836031. Epub 2019 Mar 7.

Impaired voice processing in reward and salience circuits predicts social communication in children with autism, Abrams DA, Padmanabhan A, Chen T, Odriozola P, Baker AE, Kochalka J, Phillips JM, Menon V. Elife. 2019 Feb 26;8:e39906. doi: 10.7554/eLife.39906. Full text

The journey to autism: Insights from neuroimaging studies of infants and toddlers, Wolff JJ, Jacob S, Elison JT. Dev Psychopathol. 2018 May;30(2):479-495. doi: 10.1017/S0954579417000980. Epub 2017 Jun 20. Full text

Brain and behavior development in autism from birth through infancy, Shen MD, Piven J. Dialogues Clin Neurosci. 2017 Dec;19(4):325-333. doi: 10.31887/DCNS.2017.19.4/mshen. Full text

Also see
In Some Children with Autism, “Social” and “Visual” Neural Circuits Don’t Quite Connect University of California San Diego
Autism Screenings in Early Intervention Services Can Increase Detection by 60 Percent Boston University School of Public Health
Speaking ‘baby talk’ to infants isn’t just cute: It could help them learn to make words Science Daily
The Ins and Outs of Baby Talk – Linda Polka Acoustics Today
Brain response to mom’s voice differs in kids with autism Stanford Medicine

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