Objectives: The purpose of this study was to investigate whether infants siblings of children with autism process facial features differently from typical infants and whether attention to faces and their individual features is associated with infants' social and communicative behaviors.
Methods: Visual event-related potentials (ERPs) and eye tracking data were recorded in 20 infants with no family history of autism and 10 infant siblings of children with autism (age 9 months +/- 15 days). Infants viewed photographs of smiling unfamiliar female faces. On 30% of the trials, the eyes or the mouth of the standard face were replaced by corresponding parts from a different female face. Mothers completed Receptive and Expressive Communication, and Interpersonal Relationships subscales of VABS-II.
Results: Both eye and mouth changes were detected, but associated with distinct response patterns. In typical infants, eye changes affected the face processing mechanisms and were not correlated with social or communication development, whereas mouth changes had a minimal impact on the face processing mechanisms but correlated with levels of receptive and expressive communication. In infants at risk for autism, responses to mouth changes correlated with interpersonal scores while responses to eyes correlated with receptive communication.
Conclusions: Infants with low and high risk for autism may utilize similar brain mechanisms for face processing, however (1) they derive different information from eyes vs. mouth regions of a face, and (2) individual differences in processing of these features are related to social and communicative skills.