Toddlers with Autism May Focus on Co-Occurring Sounds and Motions: As a Result, the Kids May Neglect Cues to Social Interaction

Article excerpt

When 2-year-olds with autism look at someone's face, they may crave synchronized detection rather than social connection. Toddlers with this developmental condition track sounds and sights that occur together, such as a mother's lips moving in time with sounds coming out of her mouth, rather than social cues, such as that same mother's smile, a new study suggests.

Locked in a world of co-occurring sound and motion, youngsters with autism neglect social signals that critically contribute to mental and brain development, propose Ami Klin of Yale University's Child Study Center and his colleagues. "Our findings lead us to the rather sad hypothesis that a toddler with autism might watch a face but not necessarily experience a person, since so much of that experience involves mutual eye gaze," Klin says.

The new study, published online March 29 in Nature, indicates that by age 2, kids with autism Day no attention to the array of cues indicating that a body is moving. Non-autistic children do so within days of birth. Young animals in many species monitor signs of others' movements as cues to initiate social contact.

While earlier studies have suggested that children with autism often don't look at other people's eyes, it's been unclear why. Few studies have included toddlers or infants with autism because they are difficult to diagnose and study.

"For the first time, this study has pinpointed what grabs the attention of toddlers with autism spectrum disorders," Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health in Bethesda, Md., said in a statement.


Klin's study employed point-light cartoons based on data from actors playing children's games. Each animation, consisting only of bright dots positioned at body joints, played normally on one side of a computer screen. On the other side, the animation played upside-down and in reverse. (Children with no developmental problems have difficulty discerning movement made by inverted figures.) An accompanying sound track played with each pair of cartoons. …