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Early exposure to speech shapes language skills of kids with autism

Focusing on language skills can make a world of difference for children on the autism spectrum says a new study. This impacts their reading skills as well as readiness for school.

Early diagnosis and intervention is critical to help a child with autism learn skills that enable independence. Also critical is early exposure to speech as this helps improve their language abilities, say experts. Studies show that the more words they hear as infants, the better their language skills.

A child starts learning and grasping language by the age of two. It is important for a child with autism to start communicating and interacting with their parents and siblings, says Dr U Vivek, a consultant psychiatrist, who works closely with children on the spectrum.

Early stimulation to speech and communication is important for children with autism. Parents and caretakers must introduce them to speech, occupational and other therapies at the earliest. That is precisely the reason why early diagnosis and intervention is important. In fact, that is the key to making the child independent to a large extent. - Dr U Vivek, Consultant Psychiatrist

Researchers conducted the study on 96 kids who were diagnosed with autism below the age of two years. Sixty of them have an older sibling with autism, and 14 of these siblings had been diagnosed at two years of age. The families of the babies were given a wearable audio recorder called Language Environment Analysis (LENA). They used the device to record their conversation with the babies and the vocalisations the babies made over two days at ages 9 months and 15 months.

The researchers tested the children's language skills at 24 months using the Mullen Scales of Early Learning, which also probe some nonverbal cognitive skills.The study showed that the more words a child hears, the higher the language skills. This is true for all kids, with and without autism but in the case of the latter, it enhances their reading skills and preparedness for school.

Because they vocalise less than other babies, infants on the autism spectrum tend to fall out of a conversational pattern with their parents. The study shows that it is important for parents to be patient and persist.

"It is important for parents to recognise the speech and communication difficulties faced by the child. If they notice something, they must get it assessed and diagnosed at the earliest", says Subhashini Rao, Founder, Sankalp Special School in Chennai. 'Siblings play a crucial role in helping out children with autism to communicate better. That is why we suggest parents to have a second child if their first child has autism. Talking, communicating, interacting and mingling is extremely important".

This study is seen as pathbreaking as most of the interventions that exist for children with autism below 18 months tend to focus on social bonding. The new study shows it is possible to make a difference to language ability at a young age.

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