Objectives: Given evidence that individuals with autism have difficulty abstracting prototypes, the current research was interested in studying whether infants who are at risk for developing autism as a result of having an older sibling with autism would also demonstrate difficulties abstracting prototypes. Given the extensive research literature (e.g., Rakison & Oakes, 2003) indicating that typical developing infants both form categories and abstract prototypes well before twelve months of age, and given the importance of these abilities for both learning about the world and developing language, deficits in these abilities by infants at-risk for autism would have a significant impact on their cognitive and social development. Thus, this research looked at the ability of high and low risk siblings to abstract prototype patterns. Methods: The study was designed after Younger & Gotleib (1988). Infants were tested at 6- and 11 months of ages. The infants were either at high risk (HR) of developing autism because they had an older sibling(s) already diagnosed for the disorder, or at low risk (LR) for developing autism because they had older sibling(s) without autism. Infants were familiarized with category instances that varied around a prototypical dot pattern such as a “Z” made up of 9 dots. Category instances were constructed by randomly distorting the individual dots of the prototypical pattern. After familiarization, infants received pairings of the unseen prototype pattern next to a novel dot pattern. It was expected that, if the infants were abstracting the prototypical pattern, they would spend more time fixating the novel stimulus pattern. Infants looking times were determined objectively with eye-tracking technology.
Results: It was found that, LR infants at both ages were able to abstract the prototypical dot pattern (t(27)= 2.41, p= .02). In contrast, there was no evidence that the HR infants had abstracted the prototype (t(22) = .40, p=.69).
Conclusions: Similar to children and adults with autism, infants at risk for autism also have difficultly abstracting prototypes. Since the stimuli were dot patterns, this may have been the result of their inability to scan the pattern sufficiently to abstract an overall pattern. Eye-tracking data is being analyzed to determine if this was true. Importantly, the study demonstrates early core cognitive deficits in infants at risk for autism