+ Toddlers’ Focus on Mouth Is Predictor of Autism Severity

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Scientists at the Yale School of Medicine found that two-year-olds with autism looked significantly more at the mouths of others, and less at their eyes, than typically developing children.

Eye-tracking technology was used by lead author Warren Jones and his colleagues Ami Klin and Katelin Carr.  They quantified the visual fixations of toddlers as they watched caregivers approach them and engage in typical mother-child interactions, such as playing games like peek-a-boo.

After the first few weeks of life, infants look in the eyes of others, setting socialization processes in motion.  Even after infancy, all through one’s life, the act of looking at the eyes of others is a window on people’s feelings and thoughts.  It is a powerful facilitator in shaping the formation of the social mind and brain.

The Yale scientists found that the amount of time toddlers spent focused on the eyes predicted their level of social disability.  The less they focused on the eyes, the more severly disabled they were.

These results may offer a useful biomarker for quantifying the presence and severity of autism early in life, and make it possible to screen infants for autism.  The findings could aid research on the neurobiology and genetics of autism, work that is dependent on quantifiable markers of syndrome expression.

Jones, a research scientist from the Yale School of Medicine Interdepartmental Neuroscience Program and the Yale Child Study Center, says

“The findings offer hope that these novel methods will enable the detection of vulnerabilities for autism in infancy.  We hope this technology can be used to detect and measure signs of an emerging social disability, potentially improving a child’s outcome.  Earlier intervention would capitalize on the neuroplasticity of the developing brain in infancy.

Ami Klin, Jones’s collaborator, says they are now using this technology in a large prospective study of the younger siblings of children with autism, who are at greater risk of also developing the condition. 

Following at-risk babies on a monthly basis from the time they are born, researchers hope to trace the origins of social engagement in human infants and detect the first signs of derailment from the normative path.

Jones and Klin are also engaged in parallel studies aimed at identifying the mechnisms underlying abnormal visual fixation in infants with autism.

The working hypothesis is that these children’s increased fixation on mouths points to a predisposition to seek physical, rather than social contingencies in their surrounding world. 

The thought is that they focus on the physical synchronicity between lip movements and speech sounds, rather than on the social-affective context of the entreating eye-gaze of others.  According to Jones, “These children may be seeing faces in terms of their physical attributes alone, watching a face without necessarily experiencing it as an engaging partner sharing in a social interaction.”

source: “Science Daily” online article on 9/27/08.  www.sciencedaily.com

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