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

Faulty cell signaling derails cerebral cortex development, could it lead to autism?

September 20, 2017
As the embryonic brain develops, an incredibly complex cascade of cellular events occur, starting with progenitors - the originating cells that generate neurons and spur proper cortex development. If this cascade malfunctions ...

Predicting atypical development in infants at high risk for autism?

September 12, 2017
New research from the Sackler Institute for Developmental Psychobiology at Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) identifies a potential biomarker that predicts atypical development in 1- to 2-month-old infants at high ...

Study identifies new genetic risk factor for developing autism spectrum disorder

September 1, 2017
Autism spectrum disorder affects approximately one out of every 68 children in the United States. Despite expansive study, the origin and risk factors of the complex condition are not fully understood.

Scientists make autism advance using monkey model

August 21, 2017
Autism is a common neurodevelopmental disorder characterized by impaired social communication and restricted and repetitive behavior or interests. The reported prevalence of autism has been rising worldwide. Due to the application ...

High quality early intervention for children with autism quickly results in costs savings

August 8, 2017
One in every 68 children in the United States has autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a neuro-developmental disorder that results in difficulty socializing and communicating needs and desires, and often is accompanied by restricted ...

Research identifies effects of cognitive behaviour therapy on parents of children with autism

August 1, 2017
Parents of children with autism experience a greater impact from their child's therapy than once thought, according to new research out of York University's Faculty of Health.

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.