10:16am Sunday 05 April 2020

Looking for early signs of autism

The way young infants process speech patterns may hold the clues to finding early markers for Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and enable these children to get help earlier, say researchers at the University of Calgary’s Speech Development Lab.

The project studies infants between four and 36-months old who are siblings of children who have already been diagnosed with ASD. Suzanne Curtin, head of the Speech Development Lab, says by understanding the relationship between early speech development, social communication, and autistic behaviours, it may be possible to diagnose children with the disorder earlier.

“The sooner we can see differences in behaviours that are specific to those infants who go on to receive a diagnosis of ASD, the sooner we can send these infants to targeted intervention programs,” says Curtin. “Early detection leads to early intervention, which results in better long-term outcomes.”

Current estimates suggest about one in every 150 children face some form of ASD, which is characterized by widespread abnormalities of social interactions and communication, as well as severely restricted interests and highly repetitive behavior.

Joleen and Ed Beaven have been involved the so-called Baby Sibs study for nearly three years. “As the study progressed and we learned that our younger son John was on the autism spectrum, the support of the study helped us access services and support much earlier than usual,” says Joleen. “This has made all the difference in his treatment and future prognosis.”

Two U of C graduate students are working specifically on how infant siblings process speech starting at four-months of age. Danielle Droucker, a PhD student in Applied Psychology, is examining infant preferences for infant-directed speech (ID) versus adult-directed speech (AD). Compared to AD speech, speech that is directed towards infants is more effective at engaging attention, communicating affect and emotion, and facilitating language learning in infants.

“If children don’t pay attention to ID speech, this may negatively impact language learning and social communication, especially in this high-risk population where deficits in social communication are found,” says Droucker.

Jennifer Ference, a new MSc student in Clinical Psychology who recently was awarded a Masters-level grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, will be exploring whether infant siblings are sensitive to rhythmical patterns of language.

“A vital step in language learning is the infant’s ability to identify words in speech and one way they can do this is by relying on their knowledge of their language’s rhythmic pattern,” says Ference. This information is not only helpful for finding words, but also for learning about intonation.

Intonation conveys information about different speech styles, including infant-direct speech, speaker emotion and affect, and pragmatic cues, such as sarcasm. Some older children with ASD have difficulty using and processing these different types of speech styles.

“There may be differences in how young infants at risk of ASD perceive these rhythm patterns and these differences may help us to identify infants who might later exhibit ASD behaviours.”

The Speech Lab is interested in finding new study participants, specifically looking for families who have an older child already diagnosed with ASD and a younger sibling between the ages of two months and two years. Please call 403.220.2444 or go to: http://psych.ucalgary.ca/speechlab/autismcontact.html

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