Objectives: To examine the fixation behavior of 36-month-old siblings of children with autism (high-risk group) in comparison to typically developing (TD) children (low-risk group) during a social interaction task with a caregiver in an effort to improve characterization of autism and the broader autism phenotype (BAP).
Methods: We examined the facial fixation behavior of 36-month-old siblings of children with autism (n = 28) and a typically developing comparison group (n = 25). All 53 children were part of a larger study and were followed longitudinally starting at 6 months of age. At 36 months of age, the children were grouped into best-estimate clinical diagnostic categories (including Autism/ASD, BAP or TD)) using data from the ADOS-G, ADI-R, Mullen Scales of Early Learning, and behavioral observations. Each study participant sat in front of the eye-tracking monitor and engaged in a live interaction (peek-a-boo) with his/her caregiver via a closed-circuit computer monitor. Fixation patterns during the interaction were compared between clinical diagnostic groups.
Results: Children diagnosed with Autism/BAP (n=10) displayed an atypical fixation pattern, focusing less on the upper region of the face (eyes: p < 0.05) and more on areas around the face (hands: p < 0.05) than TD children in both the high-risk and low-risk groups (n = 41). The siblings of children with autism who were found to be typically developing (n = 19) showed similar fixation behavior to TD control children (n = 22) for upper face, lower face, and hand regions (ps > 0.341).
Conclusions: Our findings suggest that young children diagnosed with autism and the BAP display atypical attention to faces when interacting with a caregiver compared to TD children in both the high-risk and low-risk groups at 36 months of age. Importantly, the results of this study demonstrate that differences in facial fixation behavior are not a general feature of children at risk for autism; rather, those high-risk siblings who were diagnosed as typically developing displayed typical fixation behavior. The results of the current study also indicate that there is a close relationship between social impairment and facial fixation behavior, supporting the hypothesis that gaze patterns at a very early age are related to social development. Consequently, eye-tracking technology within the context of the infant sibling research design is useful for characterizing early signs of autism and the BAP.