a young child looking at the cameraResearch from the LENA Research Foundation and the University of Memphis recently inquired into how parents respond to children’s sounds. They found that children elicit more responses from adults by making speech-like sounds and parents were less responsive to non-speech sounds. The research has implications for understanding how language and social skills develop and why children with autism develop speech more slowly than their peers.

The research team collected day-long audio recordings from caregivers and children for analysis using a program called LENA (Language ENvironmental Analysis). The participants consisted of 106 typically developing children and 77 children with autism, aged eight months to four years. The children wore small audio recorders throughout the day, which produced 13,836 hours of audio data. Afterwards, the researchers used LENA to identify who or what was producing sounds and the type of sounds recorded. LENA differentiated speech-type vocalizations from sounds like crying and laughing.

According to the results, adults are more likely to respond to children’s noisemaking when their vocalizations are speech-related. In turn, this makes children respond, creating a social feedback loop of vocal exchanges and promoting speech development. The data demonstrated that children with autism produce fewer vocalizations. The responses that children with autism receive from adults are less connected to whether their sounds are speech-related. This results in fewer opportunities for creating a positive social feedback loop.

Additionally, the data indicate that mothers with higher levels of education were linked to increased rates of children’s vocalization. The researchers observed increased sensitivity by adults with more education to the sounds the children produced. This likely encourages faster speech development for children in families with a higher socioeconomic status.

The findings suggest that language development is a cumulative process. Children need many examples of social interaction and speech sounds to develop their language skills.

“Our simulations provide further support that these differences may account for the slower growth in speech-related vocalization production that we see in autism compared to in typical development,” stated Anne Warlaumont, psychological scientist and study author, of University of California, Merced.

This research is published in the journal Psychological Science.

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