Research at the Yale Developmental Disabilities Clinic promises to revolutionize physicians’ approach to autism by providing an opportunity for earlier diagnosis of the disorder. Dr. Fred Volkmar, co-head of the clinic, said the research offers an entirely new way of thinking about and treating the condition.

The two-part experiment was led by Dr. Rhea Paul and subjected 30 autistic and 30 unaffected toddlers between the ages of 18 and 36 months to the same auditory stimuli in order to discern the extent to which autistic and other children reveal the same sound preference. According to Paul, at the age of seven to ten months, toddlers normally “tune in to the language they are learning and show preference towards the specific kinds of sound structures that they are attempting to learn.”

Paul holds a joint appointment at Southern Connecticut State University and the Yale Child Study Center. She is a professor of communication disorders and pursues research on autism and related disabilities, attempting to compare the auditory preferences of toddlers with autism to those of other children in similar age groups.

The experiment’s first part focused on toddlers sitting in their mothers’ laps in a booth while various sounds were broadcast from one of two sides. Parents wore headphones so as to not influence the children’s reactions to the sounds. Paul measured the how often and for how long toddlers turned their heads in response to those sound structures resembling normal speech.

Children with autism revealed a preference toward speech-resembling sound structures, but they responded less strongly than normal children. Additionally, autistic children kept their heads turned in the same direction for much longer periods of time.

Paul also measured the amount of time that toddlers concentrated on speech with pauses placed at the end of clauses and sentences, as opposed to speech with abnormal pauses. Again, the preferences of autistic children were very similar to those of normal ones, but much weaker.

“Distinguishing between these two forms of speech is an important ability: it represents one of the ways through which children learn about grammar,” Paul said. “These results reveal that autistic children have no defects in their basic equipment for breaking language down. They have the tools, but they are unable to spend the same time listening.”

The discovery shed light on new ways of dealing with autism. Historically, researchers have placed the greatest focus on developing autistic children’s speaking skills. But Paul said autistic children’s exposure to language proves more beneficial than efforts to make them talk.

“It wouldn’t help to just talk more to them,” Paul said. “When the child is looking at you while you’re talking, you have to give it some form of reinforcement in order to capture its attention.”

These results suggest a means of measuring the different preferences displayed by autistic children, which could contribute to earlier diagnosis of the condition. Dr. Ami Klin, co-head of the Developmental Disabilities Clinic at the Yale Child Studies Center, identified this possibility of earlier diagnosis as the most important contribution of the experiment.

“Children’s preference for speech sounds as opposed to other sounds in their environment is one of their most important mechanisms of socialization,” Klin said. “We knew that children with autism are born without this preferential attention. The trick was how to measure that. By being able to measure it, we can maximize the outcome of our treatment. The earlier we identify children with autism, the earlier we can provide treatment and the better the response that we will get.”