Infant Lip Reading Could Lead to Earlier Diagnosis of Autism

Research into the way babies learn to talk could have a big impact on allowing earlier diagnosis of autism spectrum disorders.

New research suggests that babies don’t just learn from hearing sounds but also learn through lip reading.

Florida scientists discovered that starting around age 6 months, babies begin shifting from the intent eye gaze of early infancy to studying mouths when people talk to them.

“The baby in order to imitate you has to figure out how to shape their lips to make that particular sound they’re hearing,” explains developmental psychologist David Lewkowicz of Florida Atlantic University, who led the study.

This fascinating study into the way babies develop language skills could provide insights into identifying when there are blocks in this process.

The study involved nearly 180 babies in groups aged 4, 6, 8, 10 and 12 months.

Researchers showed videos of a woman speaking in English or Spanish to babies of English speakers. A device tracked where each baby was focusing his or her gaze and for how long.

A dramatic shift in attention was found: When the speaker used English, the 4-month-olds looked mostly into her eyes. The 6-month-olds spent equal amounts of time looking at the eyes and the mouth. The 8- and 10-month-olds studied mostly the mouth.

At 12 months, attention started shifting back toward the speaker’s eyes.

The study data suggests that infants who continue to focus most of their attention on the mouth past 12 months of age, “… are probably not developing age-appropriate perceptual and cognitive skills and may be at risk for disorders like autism,” Lewkowicz says.

Although autism is hard to diagnose before 24 months, symptoms often surface between 12 and 18 months.  If signs are detected by 18 months of age, intensive treatment may help to rewire the brain and reverse the symptoms.  So watching for warning signs in babies and toddlers is vital.

While more research is needed, the potential to provide about six crucial months of earlier intervention for autism is a great prospect. “The earlier we can diagnose [autism], the more effectively we can ensure the best possible developmental outcomes,” says Lewkowicz.