Mechanism for Social Development Found Absent in Autistic Children

April 6, 2009

According to researchers, two-year-olds who have autism "pay attention to physical relationships between movement and sound and miss critical social information."

The March 29 online issue of the journal Nature has revealed some interesting insight about autism. According to Yale School of Medicine researchers, two-year-olds who have the disorder “lack an important building block of social interaction that prompts newborn babies to pay attention to other people” and instead “pay attention to physical relationships between movement and sound and miss critical social information.”

Ami Klin, director of the Autism Program at Yale and the Harris Associate Professor of Child Psychology at the Yale Child Study Center, along with research scientist Warren Jones and colleagues, performed the study by tracking the eye movements of two-year-olds with autism and two-year-olds without autism while they were watching cartoon animations.

Jones reported that “the eye-tracking data revealed that typically-developing two-year-olds perceived human motion in these moving points of light. They saw people. But children with autism were insensitive to the socially relevant cues in that motion, and they focused instead on physical cues that typically-developing children disregarded.”

This study reinforces previous studies by Yale researchers that found that toddlers with autism looked less at eyes, and more at mouths, signifying that they were more likely to pay attention to movements that were physically synchronous with sounds.

The Yale research team is now planning to use these findings to help them in a study that involves siblings of children with autism because of their greater genetic risk of developing the condition.

To read the online abstract of this study, which was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health, visit http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/abs/nature07868.html.

To read the press release, visit http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/03/090330200827.htm.