For individuals with autism, the process of socialization is derailed at a very early age. Typically developing babies are drawn more toward socially relevant aspects of their environment (e.g. people, particularly their eyes) than toward inanimate objects. Ami Klin and Warren Jones at Yale University have found that this is not the case for children with autism, who often possess a great deal of knowledge about their world, but are profoundly lacking in socialization.
The researchers aim to understand how babies and toddlers learn about their social surroundings, and how this process differs in children with autism. Klin and Jones developed new eye-tracking technologies and data analysis strategies to track and quantify the gaze of babies and toddlers, revealing which visual aspects of their environment they are drawn to most strongly. The researchers propose to use these measures to study the development of social engagement and the derailment of this process in autism.
Because the skills that Klin and Jones are focusing on emerge so early, they hope to use their measures to capture the earliest possible signs of vulnerability for autism. This intensive prospective study will follow babies at a greater genetic risk for autism from birth to 6 months, and then every 3 months until they are 2 years old. More than 6,000 assessments are planned over the life of this project.
Klin and Jones’ measures will allow them to determine what subjects prefer to look at when viewing naturalistic and dynamic social scenes, follow how their preferential attention changes over time, assess the influence of voices and other sounds on social visual attention, and examine how stimulus properties (motion, contrast and spatial resolution) of objects determine how much attention they attract. The researchers then plan to look for relationships between these data and the subjects’ clinical information and social abilities. Their findings may help us understand how individuals with autism relate to the world and how the social mind and brain are formed. This information may help us identify very early manifestations of autism that could serve as diagnostic markers.