Autism Clues From Baby Non-Verbal Communication
October 2, 2012

Weak Non-Verbal Cues From Babies Signal Autism

Connie K. Ho for — Your Universe Online

Whether it be hand gestures, written words, or verbal phrases, communication is an important link between people. From one person to the next, communication passes on necessary messages. However, for children with autism, communication is much more difficult and autistic patients tend to have less interactions with those around them. With this in mind, researchers from the University of Miami (UM) decided to look more closely at communication issues for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) in order to further investigate methods of predicting those who might have higher risk to develop the disorder.

To begin, the researchers looked at a group of children, some as young as eight months of age, and discovered that non-verbal communication can display signs of autism as early as three years of age. With the findings, the team of investigators believes that doctors can identify children who are at risk for autism by looking at the non-verbal cues they give. They urge for early interventions and these findings were recently featured in the journal Infancy.

"For children at risk of developing an ASD, specific communication-oriented interventions during the first years of life can lessen the severity of autism's impact," explained the study´s principal investigator Daniel Messinger, a professor of psychology in the College of Arts and Sciences at UM, in a prepared statement.

Many of the non-verbal communication related to eye contact and hand gestures, known as referential communication, and were found to be developed early on.

"Impairments in non-verbal referential communication are characteristic of older children with ASD," remarked the study´s co-author Caroline Grantz, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Psychology at UM, in the statement.

The study consisted of two groups of children, one of which had high risk for ASD and another group that was at low risk for ASD. The scientists evaluated the participants at 8, 19, 12, 15, and 18 months of age during sessions that were about 15 to 20 minutes each. In the sessions, the scientists looked at initiating joint attention (IJA), initiating behavioral requests (IBR), and responding to joint attention (RJA). In IJA, an infant shows interest in an object or a person by making eye contact with it. As for IBR, an infant may ask for help from another person by asking for a toy, pointing to it, reaching for it, or offering the toy to the person who requests it. Lastly, with RJA, infants respond to the behavior of another person.

The findings demonstrated that children between eight and 18 months of age who had a sibling with ASD as well as lower levels of IJA and IBR growth had a greater chance of developing autism as well.

"Overall, infants with the lowest rates of IJA at eight months showed lower social engagement with an examiner at 30 months of age," commented the paper´s first author Lisa Ibañez, a research scientist at the University of Washington Autism Center who worked with UM in the project, in the statement.

In moving forward with the study, the researchers plan to collaborate with Wendy Stone, a professor of psychology and director of the University of Washington Autism Center.