The researchers used eye-tracking technology to quantify the visual fixations of two-year-olds who 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 processes of socialisation in motion. In infancy and throughout life, the act of looking at the eyes of others is a window into people's feelings and thoughts and a powerful facilitator in shaping the formation of the social mind and brain.
The 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 severely disabled they were. These results may offer a useful biomarker for quantifying the presence and severity of autism early in life and screen infants for autism.
"The findings offer hope that these novel methods will enable the detection of vulnerabilities for autism in infancy," said lead author Warren Jones. "We hope this technology can be used to detect and measure signs of an emerging social disability. Earlier intervention would capitalise on the neuroplasticity of the developing brain in infancy."
The researchers are now using this technology in a prospective study of the younger siblings of children with autism, who are at greater risk of also developing the condition. "Our 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. They focus on the physical synchrony between lip movements and speech sounds, rather than on the social-affective context of the entreating eye gaze of others," said 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."
MEDICA.de; Source: Yale University