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Fathers Talk Differently to Infants at Risk for Autism


Parents engage with their infants in a variety of ways. They use physical touch, emotional response, and vocal communication to interact with their children. Vocal communication alone is rich in nuance, tone, content, and rhythm, each aspect having a different and unique effect on a child and the way in which a child responds. This form of verbal communication is referred to as “parantese” and normally decreases as children mature.

For children with autism (AD), the level of parantese and the effect it has on children may provide a unique look into impairments in the area of socialization and communication that are common with AD. To get a glimpse into the parantese patterns of parents and if they differ toward children with and without AD, David Cohen of the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at the University Pierre and Marie Curie in France recently conducted an analysis on typically developing children and children who later developed AD. Cohen assessed the level of parentese for mothers and fathers of the infants and how these levels changed over time.

Because parantese is bidirectional and influenced in part by the children’s response, Cohen expected that children who later developed AD would receive less parentese because they offered fewer communicative responses. However, the results contradicted this hypothesis. In fact, Cohen discovered that the parents of the AD children, although there was no diagnosis at the time, actually increased their level of parantese as the children aged. The typically developing children (TD) received less parantese as they matured.

Perhaps the most interesting finding was that fathers of AD children had the sharpest increases in parantese and the highest levels of parentese overall. “In the current study,” said Cohen, “Parents, particularly fathers, did not receive any diagnosis but changed their behaviour to adapt to the lack of reciprocity.”

Cohen believes that because AD children do not respond to parantese by reciprocating the communication in the same way TD children do, this lack of response may signal a developmental handicap to parents, even if they are unaware of it. In turn, the parents may then respond by increasing the level of parantese to those children, with the intent of helping the children strengthen their communication skills.

In contrast, the TD children may demonstrate less need for continual parantese and therefore, the parents may begin to adjust their communication styles as these children age. These results are clinically significant and can help inform specialists and counselors working with AD children and families. The findings here provide valuable information into the developmental processes at play during parental verbal interactions with children at risk for AD.

Cohen, D., Cassel, R.S., Saint-Georges, C., Mahdhaoui, A., Laznik, M-C., et al. (2013). Do parentese prosody and fathers’ involvement in interacting facilitate social interaction in infants who later develop autism? PLoS ONE 8(5): e61402. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061402

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  • Candi June 14th, 2013 at 3:56 AM #1

    At risk for autism? I didn’t realize that there was such a thing as being at risk for autism. I thought that this was something that just sneaks up on families with little warning. Like one day the child is normal and then over a progression of time they start to realize that there is something wrong.

  • NICOLE June 15th, 2013 at 12:21 AM #2

    Weird how the ‘adjustment’ is happening without there being an alarm on the decreasing reciprocity from the kids.

    Any reasons why this happens?Lack of information?Or is it the belief that nothing can go wrong with my child?

  • Benjamin June 15th, 2013 at 4:41 AM #3

    It’s kind of like that sixth sense. Maybe the parents sense that there is something not quite right there way before there is any kind of official diagnosis and recognition

  • meg h June 17th, 2013 at 4:35 AM #4

    If only the doctors could be a fly on the wall! the they could point out who is doing this and that could lead to VERY early intervention for the families and children.

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