Children with autism and language regression reach key motor milestones earlier than autistic children without language regression, according to a new study. While some researchers believe that all children with autism struggle with language skills at some point, others say regression represents a specific subset of children with autism. The new study, conducted by Ben-Gurion University assistant professor Idan Menashe, supports the latter theory.
According to a report this month by Spectrum News, Menashe says the study’s 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.”
Menashe and his colleagues found that children who spoke at least three words at least a month before losing that vocabulary began to walk, crawl, and talk at the same age as typical children do. By contrast, the researchers found that autistic children without language regression gained these basic skills several months later and were already on a different developmental trajectory.
According to Spectrum’s report, the researchers focused exclusively on language regression, and confirmed the loss through parent questionnaires, clinical records, and follow-up parent interviews. 218 autistic children were screened in the study, but only those for whom all or none of three sources reported language regression: 36 children with language regression and 104 without.
The researchers found that the autistic children with language regression crawled 1.5 months earlier, walked three months earlier, and talked about eight months earlier than the children without language regression. Physically, the researchers found no differences between autistic children with and without regression and non-autistic children, although autistic children without language regression were more likely to have low muscle tone.
The researchers also found that autistic children with language regression were diagnosed earlier than those without, possibly because their parents sought help after noticing the regression. The findings of the study were published in August in the journal Autism Research.
Menashe acknowledged the pitfalls of grouping children into “regression” and “no regression,” due to the possibility that some children might not fit neatly into either category.
“We looked at the two extremes knowing we might miss a lot of people that might not fit into these two groups,” he was quoted as saying by Spectrum. “Maybe it is actually one continuum, but it’s very difficult to define.”