A new study from researchers at the Yale University School of Medicine reports on some early indicators that a child may later be diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The researchers found that 6-month-old infants who were later diagnosed with ASD tended to look away from key facial features when that face is speaking.
The researchers used eye tracking technology to assess the way that a group of 99 infants looked at videos of various faces. The faces were either still, smiling or speaking. Eye tracking technology maps where an infant’s eyes are focussed and is an effective way to study an infant’s reaction to social stimuli. An altered reaction to those stimuli is a key characteristic of individuals diagnosed with ASD.
When the infants were assessed at the age of 3 years, the researchers found that those who had later been diagnosed with ASD had spent less time looking at the faces at the age of 6 months than the other infants. Interestingly, they also found that the infants diagnosed with ASD tended to look away from key facial features, such as the eyes of mouth, when the face was speaking.
‘Our study suggests that infants later diagnosed with ASD have difficulties regulating attention to complex social scenes. It also suggests that the presence of speech might uniquely disturb the attention of infants who later develop ASD at a critical developmental point when other infants are acquiring language and learning about their social world.’
Speech Disturbs Face Scanning in 6-Month-Old Infants Who Develop Autism Spectrum Disorder. by Frederick Shic, Suzanne Macari, and Katarzyna Chawarska (doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2013.07.009). Biological Psychiatry, Volume 75, Issue 3 (February 1, 2014), published by Elsevier.