a baby in a knit capCould the age at which babies start babbling indicate a future diagnosis of autism? According to recent research, there is a strong correlation between a delayed development of babbling (uttering consonant-vowel syllables like ‘ba’ or ‘go’) and being diagnosed with autism later on. The findings may help practitioners identify children with autism at a younger age.

The researchers built on previous studies that found children with autism often have difficulties with making sounds that lead to language production. They analyzed home movies of 37 babies—23 who were later diagnosed with autism and 14 who comprised the control group. Parents sent in two five-minute videos for each child, one taken between the age of 9 to 12 months and another between 15 and 18 months. The researchers tallied up the number of utterances the infants produced, ruling out sounds like grunts or hiccups. They excluded two infants as outliers because they babbled more than anyone else in the cohort.

The babies who were later diagnosed with autism babbled less than the controls. At 9 to 12 months, the infants with autism produced an average of 4.5 syllables per minute, while the control group produced 5.8 syllables per minute. For every 100 sounds produced, the autism group babbled six times, but the control group had 17 instances of babbling. The analysis revealed that typically developing babies are 17 times more likely to start babbling by 9 to 12 months of age than infants with autism. Furthermore, babies without autism are six times more likely to start babbling by 15 to 18 months.

Why children with autism start babbling later is not yet understood. It may be that their motor skills are inhibiting their ability to speak. The delay could also be related to the fact that people with autism are not particularly motivated by social interaction.

Since delays in babbling development are unusual, babbling could be a reliable early indicator of autism in infants. Earlier identification of autism can help children receive critical interventions.

This research is published in the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.

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