Autistic toddlers do not tune in to sounds with others

Unlike typical toddlers, those with autism tend not to share experiences involving sound — dancing to music with their parents, for example, or directing a parent’s attention toward a cat’s meow — according to a new study1.

Sharing sounds in this way is a form of joint attention — focusing on something intentionally with another person — which helps young children learn social skills and how to communicate. Joint attention also occurs when, for instance, a parent looks at a toy and names it, and their child follows their gaze to look at it, too. Children typically develop joint attention as toddlers, but autistic children often do not, and a lack of that skill is thought to be one of the earliest signs of autism.

Previous work has focused on visual joint attention, often in the context of a parent trying to get a child to look at their face or at a particular object. The new study examined joint attention elicited by a range of sounds. As with new sights, children with autism are often interested in new sounds, the researchers found, but less interested in sharing them.

This work is one step toward finding out how variations in children’s experiences of sharing sounds might relate to later language development, says lead researcher Lauren Adamson, Regents professor emerita at Georgia State University in Atlanta. The findings were published in August in Autism Research.

Some past work has led researchers to suspect that atypical face processing lies at the root of autistic children’s joint-attention problems, because joint attention often depends on a child following a parent’s gaze. The new findings point to a deeper cognitive construct involved in atypical joint attention, one that is likely shared by visual and auditory processing, says Peter Mundy, professor of education and psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, who was not involved in the work.

“That’s very useful, because we get stuck in a paradigm if we think about it being tied specifically to a behavior rather than a neurocognitive process,” he says.

Sharing sounds:

Adamson and her team examined auditory joint-engagement skills — joint attention coupled with an interaction around a shared experience — in 49 typically developing toddlers, 46 autistic toddlers and 46 non-autistic toddlers with other developmental disabilities, such as developmental language disorder. All of the children were younger than 30 months old.

While each child played with a parent or caregiver, the researchers used hidden speakers to pipe in a series of different sounds: instrumental classical music, birdsong or cats meowing, train or motorcycle sounds and recordings of human speech that included the child’s name.

At first, the researchers instructed parents to ignore the sounds and continue playing, giving them the opportunity to see if the children noticed a sound and attempted to share it, perhaps by looking back and forth between the parent and the sound source, talking to the parent about the sound or looking at the parent and pointing toward the sound source.

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