A study published Friday in the journal Biological Psychiatry finds that 6-month old infants who are at high risk for being diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have difficulties regulating attention to faces, particularly if they are speaking.
While infants typically display a preference for the faces and voices of people in their environment, individuals diagnosed with ASD have difficulty maintaining eye contact and attention when interacting with others. Children with autism also have difficulty reading social cues and maintaining conversations, while those on the more severe end of the spectrum are indifferent to the sounds of the human voice. The cause of this disturbance in attention is unknown, although theories range from a form of social anxiety to the notion that children with autism find the human voice aversive.
This study looked at 68 high-risk infants, such as those who had a sibling with autism or other risk factors, and 54 low-risk infants, who were then reassessed at 3 years of age. The results of infants later diagnosed with ASD were compared with infants without a diagnosis of ASD at the age of 3.
Each group viewed different sets of faces that were either still, moving and displaying a positive affect or speaking. The researchers found that the group who went on to develop ASD displayed general decreased attention to each of the scenes, in particular decreased attention to the inner areas of the face including the eyes, mouth and nose.
Furthermore, they found that the presence of speech further disturbed the attention of the high-risk infants. In the speech condition, there was increased gazing towards "non-face areas" of the person, such as the skin, hair and body. This decreased attention from the inner areas of the face to non-face areas was unique to the high-risk group in speech condition, i.e. when viewing a person speaking, the children who were later diagnosed on the autism spectrum were more likely to look away from that person's face.
The results of this study are telling due to the fact that the presence of speech uniquely disturbs high-risk infants at a critical developmental milestone at which typically developing infants acquire language and pick up on social cues. This could also provide a key tool for diagnosis at the very young age of 6 months, leading to the implementation of early intervention services.
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