A new study finds that a highly responsive mother has a significant impact on the positive development of communication and language skills in children with Fragile X syndrome (FXS), the leading genetic cause of autism and other intellectual disabilities.
The findings show that maternal responsiveness is also positively tied to the children’s socialization and daily living skills and may even mitigate the declines often reported in children with FXS beginning in middle childhood.
The study followed 55 children from ages two to 10 and is still continuing into adolescence.
The researchers focused on a set of specific maternal behaviors, collectively called maternal responsvity, in the family home. These included commenting on the child’s behavior and/or focus of attention; requesting a verbal response; and verbally “recoding” or restating and/or expanding what a child says.
“Our discovery of the impact of contingent maternal responsivity on child adaptive behavior development underscores the fact that the manifestation of FXS is not just the product of biology, but is ultimately attributable to the dynamic interaction of biology, behavior, and environment over lengthy periods of time,” said Steven Warren, Ph.D., Distinguished Professor of Speech-Language-Hearing: Science & Disorders at the University of Kansas.
The positive impact of sustained high levels of maternal responsivity from toddlerhood through middle childhood was true even for children with more severe autistic symptoms and lower nonverbal cognitive development levels.
“Our researchers painstakingly coded each instance of maternal behavior toward their child, said Nancy Brady, Ph.D., associate professor of Speech-Language-Hearing. “This allowed us to discover that Mom’s behaviors, like responding to all communication, even nonverbal communication, has important implications down the road.”
Previously, the researchers reported that 56 percent of the children in the study showed declines in adaptive behavior at or before the age of ten, with an average age of seven years for the beginning of the decline, both in relation to their peers and in absolute terms.
But the present analysis showed that these declines did not occur or were substantially less for children with highly responsive mothers.
The findings may have important clinical and educational implications for children with FXS, said Brady. “We see no downside and potentially a considerable upside in training efforts aimed at enhancing and supporting sustained highly responsive parenting for children with FXS during both early and middle childhood.”
In their previous research, Brady and Warren found that vocabulary growth in children with FXS was associated with mothers who displayed greater early and sustained responsivity up until their children reached the age of nine. Again, this was not dependent on the child’s nonverbal IQ, autism symptoms or the education level of the mother but showed the unique contribution of maternal responsivity.
“There is no doubt that parenting plays a dynamic, cumulative role in human development in concert with biology and other environmental forces,” said Warren.
“Our ability to understand these effects is greatly enhanced by long term longitudinal studies that allow us to observe how these forces interact across development. Ultimately the knowledge gained from these studies should pave the way for increasingly effective interventions and treatments.”