Blinking Patterns Give Insight to Autism

Researchers believe that they may have found an important link to how autistic children process information by studying when and why they blink.

Researchers believe that they may have found an important link to how autistic children process information by studying when and why they blink.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), one in 110 children in the US has been diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder, a series of developmental disorders known to affect an individual’s capacity to communicate and relate to others.

The researchers found there are significant differences between toddlers with and without autism spectrum disorder and when they blink their eyes. Blinking interrupts a human being’s line of vision; in cases when something interesting is occurring in front of our eyes, we are able to exhibit “blink inhibition” in order to keep our focus on the matter in front of us.

"When we blink and when we don't can actually index how engaged people are with what we're looking at, and how important they perceive that thing to be," reported Warren Jones, PhD, the director of research at the Marcus Autism Center at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.

The researchers focused on the blinking patterns of 2-year-olds with and without autism as they watched a video of a boy and girl playing. The video showed the two children moving physically and interacting with each other. The researchers found that the blinking rate of the children without autism decreased when they were watching the social interaction segments of the video instead of the physical play segments, but this pattern was reversed in the children with autism.

Children with autism lack certain abilities that enable the general population to communicate and relate to each other, usually based on facial expressions and wordplay. "Without understanding the social context in which actions happen, children with autism may often be reacting, after the fact, to physical events that have already happened," stated Jones. He went on to say that these findings "might give us more information about cues that are distracting to children with autism, and it might also give us information about cues that are naturally engaging to [these] children."

Autism experts have expressed their excitement over the possible implications of the study and where the findings may lead future research.

"This is a very well-done study that demonstrates the unique patterns of social attention in autism," said Thomas Frazier II, PhD, the director of research at the Cleveland Clinic Children's Hospital Center for Autism. "In fact, if replicated, this information may become useful for developing earlier and more objective diagnostic tools.”

The chief science officer for Autism Speaks, Geraldine Dawson, PhD, said, "These results suggest that therapy should focus on helping the child to become more emotionally engaged with the social world and to learn that people are important and rewarding. The hope is that, as a result of therapy, the young child with autism will show higher levels of attention."

The new finding appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.