Child snuggling a blanket

Research and reports

How can children's attention to “baby talk” help diagnose autism?

Resource Details

  • Written by

    Mirjana Sekicki

  • Read time

    3 min

“Baby talk”, termed motherese, is a way of speaking we use with small children. It is characterized by simplified grammar, high pitch, and exaggerated intonation. There is evidence that from their earliest days, children prefer listening to motherese than to adult-directed speech.

In search of a reliable early indicator of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), Prof. Dr. Karen Pierce and her colleagues from the Autism Center of Excellence at the University of California San Diego (USA) have found that children’s lack of attention to motherese can be used for early detection of ASD.

In this large-scale study, previous diagnosis allowed for comparison among children with autism and multiple other groups (some ASD features, development delay, typical development, typical sibling of an ASD proband).

In what is called a gaze-contingency paradigm, it was the child’s interest that determined what they saw during the experiment. Children were presented with videos of a story being told in motherese alongside another distracting video, such as noisy traffic or moving geometric shapes with electronic sounds. Fixating on one of the presented videos would automatically play it. Only when one moves their gaze to the other video would the first be paused and the second played.

Most toddlers attended mainly to the motherese speech. Only 23% of all participants previously diagnosed with ASD showed low levels of attention to motherese speech. The authors propose a minimum of 70% of the test spent attending to stimuli other than the motherese social video to be a reliable indicator of children with ASD who most need immediate attention. Such a conservative cut-off point diagnoses individuals with ASD with high accuracy while ensuring that unnecessary stressful false-positive results are avoided. Since attention to social stimuli is an early marker of ASD traits, a diagnostic tool like the one verified in this paper could aid in early diagnosis and timely treatment onset.


Pierce, K., Wen, T. H., Zahiri, J., Andreason, C., Courchesne, E., Barnes, C. C., ... & Cheng, A. (2023). Level of attention to motherese speech as an early marker of autism spectrum disorder. JAMA network open, 6(2), e2255125-e2255125.

Read more

Interested in similar articles? Visit our scientific publication hub to see all our scientific publication highlights.

Resource Details

  • Written by

    Mirjana Sekicki

  • Read time

    3 min

    Resource type

    • Research and reports

    Tagged products

    • Eye trackers

    Tagged solutions

    • Scientific research


Related content

Boy with autism
Customer stories

How Osaka University uses eye tracking to identify autism

In a research project aimed at developing an objective index to identify autism in patients, subjects were recorded with Tobii Pro eye trackers while viewing video clips. By analyzing gaze patterns, researchers developed a quantitative method to help diagnose autism.

Learn more