New hope for children with autism who never learn to speak

hispanic childrenScientists at the University of Birmingham recently published a paper in Frontiers in Neuroscience showing that there is real hope for progress for children with autism, by using interventions that are based on understanding natural language development and the role of motor  behaviour in toddlers.

The study was led by Dr Joe McCleery, supported by autism research charity Autistica, and examined over 200 published papers and more than 60 different intervention studies.

The ScienceDaily article states that the study found:

‘Motor behaviours, such as banging toys and copying gestures or facial expressions (“mirroring”), play a key role in the learning of language.

Children with autism show specific motor impairments, and less “mirroring” brain activity, particularly in relation to strangers in whom they show very little interest. This finding may hold the key to language problems overall.

Despite extensive use of sign language training to improve speech and communication skills in non-verbal children with autism, there is very little evidence that it makes a positive impact, potentially due to the impairments in motor behaviours and mirroring.

Picture exchange training can lead to improvements in speech. Here, children gradually learn to “ask” for things by exchanging pictures. This may work well because it does not depend on complex motor skills or mirroring.

Play-based approaches which employ explicit teaching strategies and are developmentally based are particularly successful.

New studies involving a focus on motor skills alongside speech and language intervention are showing promising preliminary results. This is exciting because these interventions utilise our new understanding of the role of motor behaviours in the development of speech and social interaction.’

Dr McCleery’s team are underatking new work in order to design interventions that are targeted specifically  towards aspects of development where there are ‘deficits in non-verbal autistic children’.

Dr McCleery says:

“We feel that the field is approaching a turning point, with potentially dramatic breakthroughs to come in both our understanding of communication difficulties in people with autism, and the potential ways we can intervene to make a real difference for those children who are having difficulties learning to speak.”

Christine Swabey, CEO of Autistica, says:

“80% of the parents in our recent consultation wanted interventions straight after diagnosis. Dr McCleery’s work shows how critical it is for all intervention to be evidence-based, and that the best approaches are based on a real understanding of the development of difficulties in autism. We are proud to be supporting the next steps in this vital research which will improve the quality of life for people with autism.”

*Journal Reference
Joseph P. McCleery, Natasha A. Elliott, Dimitrios S. Sampanis, Chrysi A. Stefanidou. Motor development and motor resonance difficulties in autism: relevance to early intervention for language and communication skills. Frontiers in Integrative Neuroscience, 2013; 7