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Autism’s Language Regression Tied to Motor Milestones

Autism’s Language Regression Tied to Motor Milestones

October 10, 2019

Medical Research

Spectrum  Children with Autism who lose words reach key milestones earlier than autistic children without language regression, according to a new study from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

The idea of “regressive autism” is controversial: Some researchers argue that all autistic children lose language or other skills at some point, and that, like autism itself, regression is on a spectrum. Others say regression characterizes a subtype of children with autism.

BGU’s study findings, published in the August issue of Autism Research, supports the latter hypothesis.

Dr. Idan Menashe, who conducted the research on autism and milestones

“Our findings suggest that there is something unique in this [regression] group, something about their development that is different from the development of children with no regression,” says lead investigator Dr. Idan Menashe from BGU’s School of Public Health and National Autism Research Center.

Menashe and his colleagues studied children who spoke at least three words for at least a month before losing that vocabulary. They found that these children began to crawl, walk and talk at the same age, on average, as typical children do, suggesting that they were developing typically before the regression’s onset.

By contrast, autistic children without language regression gained these skills several months later and were already on a different developmental trajectory.

Because the definition of regression is contentious, the team narrowed their investigation to consider only language regression, and they confirmed the loss in three independent sources: parent questionnaires, clinical records and follow-up parent interviews.

Baby steps

 The autistic children with language regression crawled 1.5 months earlier, walked three months earlier and talked about eight months earlier, on average, than autistic children without regression, the researchers found. That timing is similar in age-matched neurotypical controls.

“They seem to have typical development in terms of times of key developmental milestones,” Menashe says.

Because physical development can influence motor and language development, the researchers also measured head circumference, height and weight in a subset of participants. They found no differences between autistic children with and without regression and neurotypical controls, although autistic children without regression were significantly more likely to have low muscle tone.

Children with language regression were diagnosed with autism earlier than those without, the researchers found, perhaps because their parents sought medical help when they noticed the skill loss.

The analysis also shows that children with language regression require significant support, according to criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. But previous studies have found mixed results on whether regression predicts how autistic children fare later in life.

Accounting for children who don’t fall neatly into either category is easier said than done, however. “We looked at the two extremes knowing we might miss a lot of people that might not fit into these two groups,” Menashe says. “Maybe it is actually one continuum, but it’s very difficult to define.”

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