Scientists say that maternal sensitivity may influence language development among children who go on to develop autism.
According to researchers at the University of Miami, maternal responsiveness can predict language growth among children in the early stages of autism.
The study entitled, "A Pilot Study of Maternal Sensitivity in the Context of Emergent Autism," is published online this month and will appear in an upcoming issue of the Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders.
"Language problems are among the most important areas to address for children with autism, because they represent a significant impairment in daily living and communication," says Daniel Messinger, associate professor in the department of psychology at the University of Miami (UM) College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator of a larger study of infants at-risk for autism, which includes this study.
Maternal sensitivity is defined in the study as a combination of warmth, responsiveness to the child's needs, respect for his or her emerging independence, positive regard for the child, and maternal structuring, which refers to the way in which a mother engages and teaches her child in a sensitive manner.
In the study, maternal sensitivity (and primarily, sensitive structuring) was more predictive of language growth among toddlers developing autism than among children who did not go on to an autism diagnosis. One possible explanation is that children with autism may be more dependent on their environment to learn certain skills that seem to come more naturally to other children.
"Parenting may matter even more for children with developmental problems such as autism because certain things that tend to develop easily in children with typical neurological development, like social communication, don't come as naturally for kids with autism, so these skills need to be taught," says Jason K. Baker, a postdoctoral fellow at the Waisman Center, University of Wisconsin-Madison, who conducted the study with Messinger while at UM.
For the study, 33 children were assessed in the lab at 18, 24, 30 and 36 months of age. Some of the children had an older sibling diagnosed with autism and were considered high risk for autism.
At the 18-month assessment, the researchers videotaped a five minute period of mother and child free play in which the mothers were asked to play as they would at home. Aspects of maternal sensitivity were scored on seven-point scales ranging from absence of sensitive behavior to extremely sensitive behavior. Children's language was assessed at 2 and 3 years. At the 3 year visit, when the children were old enough to be evaluated, 12 of children from the high risk group received an autism-spectrum diagnosis.