Inattention in infants as young as six months can be a sign that the babies will develop autism spectrum disorders (ASD) later in life, say researchers at the Yale School of Medicine. Infants who develop autism pay less attention to people and their activities than typically developing babies.
Katarzyna Chawarska, associate professor at the Yale Child Study Center, and her colleagues investigated whether six-month-old infants later diagnosed with ASD showed symptoms in infancy such as an inability to detect social overtures and to focus on the activities of others. Before this study, it was unclear whether early symptoms of autism were present in the first year of life.
An eye-tracking task was administered to 67 infants at high risk for developing autism and 50 low-risk infants. The three-minute video was designed to show social events by depicting a woman doing familiar activities such as speaking, making a sandwich, or looking at toys. While making sandwiches, the actress occasionally looked at the camera and tried to engage the babies with eye contact and saying: “How are you, baby?” “You are so cute!” and “Did you see the tigers?”
The video was designed to engage the babies' attention to whatever they found interesting in their field of vision the same way they would in real life social situations. There were no breaks in the video that might distract the infants. Chawarska and her team monitored how often the infants looked at the scene, the toys, the woman, and the woman’s eyes and mouth.
The six month-old babies who were later diagnosed with ASD did pay attention to the scene but looked less often at the social scene or the woman’s face when compared with a control group of infants without ASD indicators.
The team is determining the specific causes that would lead to a decrease of social attention in infants and emerging social vulnerabilities. “This work is highly consequential for identifying new treatment targets and early intervention strategies,” said Chawarska.