Autism spectrum (ASD) is diagnosed through a variety of measures, including verbal, nonverbal, visual, and attentional factors. Because of this, most diagnoses are not received before age 3. But knowing what to look for in children at risk for ASD could provide earlier diagnoses, or at least give children in high risk categories access to resources that could help them address developmental challenges at the earliest possible moment. However, longitudinal studies designed to identify infant and pre-verbal signs of autism would require immense efforts and exhaustive research. Therefore, Breanna M. Winder of the Department of Psychology at Bryn Mawr College in Pennsylvania sought to accomplish a similar goal through a more feasible avenue of research.
Using a sample of 15 children at low risk (LR) for ASD and 15 high risk (HR) infants who were siblings of a child with ASD, Winder evaluated several aspects of verbal and nonverbal communication development when the children were 13, 18, and 36 months of age. Specifically, she looked at how spontaneously the children produced words, gestures, non-word vocalizations with gestures, and communicative non-word verbalizations (CNWVs). She found that the HR children had much lower rates of CNWVs at 13 months and all behaviors at 18 months when compared to the LR children. Winder said, “As a group and across age, HR infants spontaneously initiated communication at lower rates than their LR peers.” Even though only three of the children eventually received a diagnosis of ASD, the HR children all performed far below the LR children through the 36-month time period. The three children who received a diagnosis of ASD at 36 months were at the bottom of all the scales over the entire study period.
Winder believes that clinical implications can be drawn from these results. First, by recognizing CNWVs early on, parents and caregivers can identify what children may be at risk for ASD. Also, encouraging verbal and non-verbal communication in the home can be an effective way to help children with developmental delays, especially those already at heightened risk for ASD. Further, future work could extend these findings through broader and more diverse samples. “These studies represent first steps in what should become a focused effort,” said Winder.
Winder, B. M., Wozniak, R. H., Parladé, M. V., and Iverson, J. M. (2012). Spontaneous initiation of communication in infants at low and heightened risk for autism spectrum disorders. Developmental Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0031061
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