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Associations Between Maternal Prompts and Infant Communication: Insights From the Video Diaries of Infants At Risk for Autism

Thursday, 2 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
M. R. Thompson1, C. K. Cohen1, C. A. Nelson2 and H. Tager-Flusberg1, (1)Boston University, Boston, MA, (2)Boston Children's Hospital, Boston, MA
Background:  Many investigators have reported that infants with increased familial risk of autism (infant siblings of children with the disorder) demonstrate significant delays and variability in their early communication abilities (see Rogers 2009 for a review). The precise nature of these language and communication delays and variable developmental trajectories in high risk infant siblings remains poorly understood. It is possible that risk status may also contribute to changes in early infant-mother dyadic interactions by altering parental behavior – either through parents’ experiences with their older diagnosed child, concerns about their high risk infant, or in response to infants’ emerging symptoms (Dunst, Lowe, & Bartholomew, 1990; Ozonoff et al., 2009). There is a vast literature documenting the influence of maternal language, gesture, and other communicative behaviors on the language acquisition of typically developing infants, but little is known about how these maternal factors contribute to the development of language and non-verbal communication in high risk infants (Hart & Risley, 1992; Rowe, Ozçaliºkan, & Goldin-Meadow, 2008).

Objectives:  The goal of the current study is to examine the relationship between maternal prompts and scaffolding behaviors and infants’ use of both verbal and non-verbal communication strategies during a semi-structured home-based interaction.

Methods: The current study focuses on 41 families (24 LRC, 17 HRA) participating in an ongoing longitudinal study of infants at risk for autism. As part of their participation in the larger project, families were asked to film monthly semi-structured home video diaries from 6 through 18 months. Parents were asked to complete a series of activities with their infant: presenting a variety of toys, reading a book, and engaging in social routines and interactions. During the toy exploration section, mothers are asked to hold a toy out of their infants’ reach and later drop it to the floor (the ‘communication probe’). The current analysis focuses on this communication probe in diaries completed between 14 and 18 months. Tapes were scored for infants’ use of gestures and other communicative strategies and for maternal communicative prompts (questions, comments, requests, and gestures). A summary score for each variable was calculated by averaging scores across the 14 – 18 month period.

Results: Families completed an average of 2.4 tapes, which did not differ by group (t(39) = -.937, p = .36). There were no significant group differences in the rate or type of infant communication or maternal prompts. For low risk infants, there were significant positive correlations between maternal gesture and infant gesture (r = .46, p = .02) and between maternal total prompts and infant directed (those that included eye contact) communicative acts (r = .58, p <01). These correlations were not observed in the high risk group. 

Conclusions: These findings are consistent with the previous literature on the association between maternal and infant gesture use in low risk, typically developing dyads. The implications for the high risk group are less clear, but may reflect alterations in early reciprocity. Findings for the subset who meet criteria for autism at later ages will also be discussed.

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