International Meeting for Autism Research: New Perspectives On Joint Attention in Children with Autism and Their Siblings

New Perspectives On Joint Attention in Children with Autism and Their Siblings

Thursday, May 20, 2010
Franklin Hall B Level 4 (Philadelphia Marriott Downtown)
2:00 PM
P. C. Mundy , MIND Institute, UC Davis, Davis, CA
Background: Joint attention deficits are a cardinal symptom of autism and infants at risk for autism. Several new observations have recently deepened our understanding of the significance of joint attention disturbance in autism and those at risk for autism spectrum disorders.
Objectives: This paper provides a review of recent developmental and neurocognitive research on joint attention with the intent to inform research with infants at risk for autism.
Methods: Advances in theory, typical developmental data, and neurocognitive research will be reviewed to highlight information with the potential to advance both the measurement and interpretation of joint attention data in research with infants at risk for autism.
Results: Social cognitive theory suggests that joint attention development occurs in stages. The most significant stage is thought to have a 12-15 months of age onset with the emergence of gaze alternating behavior, a measure of the intentional initiation of joint attention. New data and theory, however, indicate that gaze alternation may be reliably measured by 8-9 months. This suggests an earlier onset of a critical joint attention function which may be assessed in the first year in high risk infants. Research and theory also suggest that joint attention is part of a dynamic system whereby the onset of walking increases the spatial challenges of social attention coordination. Surmounting this challenge may be an engine of cognitive development marked regression then growth. Alternatively, the onset of walking may be one point of increased risk for the breakdown of  typical development in children vulnerable to impairments in joint attention. In cognitive neuroscience new fMRI paradigms have been developed that verify theory postulating that initiating joint attention and responding to joint attention behaviors involve different constellations of cortical systems. Consistent with the theory, the former appear to be distinguished from the latter by neural activity in regions associated with motivation and reward. EEG coherence research has also provided data consistent with the hypothesis that joint attention is associated with activity in a parallel and distributed processing system spanning the frontal-temporal-parietal cortices. This research also suggests the EEG coherence measures provide a window onto asymmetries of distributed processing that contribute to differences in the joint attention capacities of people with autism and comparison groups.
Conclusions: Recent research suggests that joint attention measure may be used more effectively in the search for first year markers of social impairment in autism than some theory would predict. It may also be that the examination of joint attention during and after the consolidation of walking may be especially useful in high risk infant studies. In addition, neuroscience lends credence to the importance of discriminating between measures of initiating and responding in joint attention in infant research. Moreover, it may be possible to use EEG coherence in conjunction with joint attention measures to good effect in assessing brain behavior relations in research with the infants at risk for autism.

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