Babies' non-verbal communication skills can help predict outcomes in children at high risk of developing autism

October 1, 2012

Approximately 19 percent of children with a sibling diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) will develop Autism due to shared genetic and environmental vulnerabilities, according to previous studies. For that reason, University of Miami (UM) psychologists are developing ways to predict the occurrence of ASD in high-risk children, early in life, in hopes that early intervention will lead to better outcomes in the future. Their findings are published in the journal Infancy.

The study is one of the first to show that measures of non-verbal communication in , as young as eight months of age, predict symptoms that become evident by the third year of life. The results suggest that identifying children, who are having difficulties early enough, can enhance the effects of interventions.

"For children at risk of developing an , specific communication-oriented interventions during the first years of life can lessen the severity of autism's impact," says Daniel Messinger, professor of Psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at UM and principal investigator of the study. Before children learn to talk, they communicate non-verbally by using eye contact and gestures. These abilities are called referential communication and are in development by eight months of age. However, "impairments in non-verbal referential communication are characteristic of older children with ASD," says Caroline Grantz a in the Department of Psychology at UM and co-author of the paper.

In the study, a team of researchers tested two groups of children. One group was at high-risk for ASD and the second group was at low-risk. The evaluations took place during 15 to 20 minutes sessions, at 8, 10, 12, 15 and 18 months of life. The team measured the development of three forms of non-verbal communication:

  • Initiating Joint Attention (IJA) - the way an infant shows interest in an object or event to a partner. For example, making eye contact and pointing to show a toy.
  • Initiating Behavioral Requests (IBR)-the manner in which an infant requests help from a partner, by making to request a toy, reaching toward, pointing to, or giving the examiner a desired toy.
  • Responding to Joint Attention (RJA)-the way infants respond and follow the behavior of a partner. For example, when the examiner points to something and the child follows the experimenter's gaze to look at that an object. The results show that lower levels of IJA and IBR growth between eight and 18 months predicted the severity of ASD symptoms for children that had a sibling with Autism.
"Overall, infants with the lowest rates of IJA at eight months showed lower social engagement with an examiner at 30 months of age," says Lisa Ibañez, research scientist at the University of Washington Autism Center and first author of the paper. Ibañez conducted the study as part of her dissertation research in the Department of Psychology at UM.

These results are important enough that the research team is following up the study with collaborator Wendy Stone, Professor of Psychology and Director of the University of Washington Autism Center.

The study is titled "The Development of Referential Communication and Autism Symptomatology in High-Risk Infants." The project was funded by the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

Explore further: Study shows delays in siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders

Related Stories

Study shows delays in siblings of children with autism spectrum disorders

May 16, 2012
A new University of Miami (UM) study shows that one in three children who have an older sibling with an Autism Related Disorder (ASD) fall into a group characterized by higher levels of autism-related behaviors or lower levels ...

Eye-tracking reveals variability in successful social strategies for children with autism

February 27, 2012
In a study published in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Katherine Rice and colleagues, from the Marcus Autism Center, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, and Emory ...

Risk of autism among younger siblings of a child with autism much greater than previously reported

August 15, 2011
Autism Speaks, the world's largest autism science and advocacy organization, joined in announcing significant findings from the largest known study of younger siblings of children who had a verified diagnosis of autism spectrum ...

New study shows simple task at six months of age may predict risk of autism

May 17, 2012
A new prospective study of six-month-old infants at high genetic risk for autism identified weak head and neck control as a red flag for autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and language and/or social developmental delays. Researchers ...

Autism researchers make exciting strides

December 12, 2011
Teaching young children with autism to imitate others may improve a broader range of social skills, according to a new study by a Michigan State University scholar.

Recommended for you

Video game improves balance in youth with autism

November 21, 2017
Playing a video game that rewards participants for holding various "ninja" poses could help children and youth with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) improve their balance, according to a recent study in the Journal of Autism ...

Potential new autism drug shows promise in mice

November 14, 2017
Scientists have performed a successful test of a possible new drug in a mouse model of an autism disorder. The candidate drug, called NitroSynapsin, largely corrected electrical, behavioral and brain abnormalities in the ...

Relational factors in music therapy can contribute to positive outcome for children with autism

November 6, 2017
It might not surprise that good relationships create good outcomes, as meaningful relational experiences are crucial to all of us in our everyday life. However, the development of a relationship with a child with autism may ...

In autism, too many brain connections may be at root of condition

November 2, 2017
A defective gene linked to autism influences how neurons connect and communicate with each other in the brain, according to a study from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. Rodents that lack the gene form ...

New autism study a "shocking wake-up call" for society, say academics

October 23, 2017
People who show characteristics of autism are more at risk of attempting suicide, according to a Coventry University study whose results are being presented to a United States federal advisory committee tomorrow.

Signaling pathway may be key to why autism is more common in boys

October 17, 2017
Researchers aiming to understand why autism spectrum disorders (ASD) are more common in boys have discovered differences in a brain signaling pathway involved in reward learning and motivation that make male mice more vulnerable ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.