International Meeting for Autism Research: Similar Behavior, Different Goal: Response to Naturalistic Joint Attention Cues Correlates with Cognitive Function In Typical Toddlers but with Maladaptive Behavior In ASD

Similar Behavior, Different Goal: Response to Naturalistic Joint Attention Cues Correlates with Cognitive Function In Typical Toddlers but with Maladaptive Behavior In ASD

Thursday, May 12, 2011
Elizabeth Ballroom E-F and Lirenta Foyer Level 2 (Manchester Grand Hyatt)
1:00 PM
K. A. Rice, W. Jones and A. Klin, Marcus Autism Center, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta & Emory School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA

Research has repeatedly found altered gaze monitoring in individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). Atypicalities include diminished sensitivity to mutual gaze and impaired response to directional gaze cues. Much of that research, however, has either relied on general observational measures or has used fine-grained experimental measures at the expense of naturalistic presentation. How that work translates into sustained natural interaction, where gaze cues change quickly and often co-occur with vocalizations and other environmental cues, is unclear. Additionally, a separate body of research has indicated that toddlers with ASD preferentially attend to physical, rather than social, environmental contingencies. Investigating how young children respond to naturalistic joint attention cues during dynamic social scenes, and how these responses relate to individual social and cognitive functioning, may help to illuminate how these skills develop in toddlers with and without ASD.


This study uses eye-tracking to measure the response of toddlers with ASD to naturalistic video scenes of dynamic joint attention cues, and investigates how these measures correlate with cognitive and social functioning in both ASD and typically-developing (TD) populations.


TD two-year-olds and two-year-olds with ASD watched a three-minute video of an actress interacting with two puppets. Throughout the video, the actress spontaneously shifted her gaze between the viewer and the puppets. Each toddler’s scanning patterns were examined within a fixed temporal window following each gaze shift to measure sensitivity and response to gaze changes. In a first set of analyses, a sample of boys with ASD was matched to TD peers on chronological age and verbal and nonverbal functioning. In a second set of analyses, data from larger, unmatched samples of ASD and TD toddlers, with both males and females, were analyzed to determine within-group correlations of visual scanning with measures of cognitive and social functioning.


Response to joint attention cues—shifting towards the face during mutual gaze or towards the puppet during directed gaze shifts—positively predicted language ability in the TD sample.  We observed some similar, although reduced, behaviors in the ASD sample; however, rather than responding prototypically to joint attention cues (e.g., shifting towards the eyes), ASD toddlers shifted more widely to other parts of the face and head.  These measures of response were uncorrelated with cognitive function in the ASD sample and instead predicted more severe restricted and repetitive behaviors.  For the more impaired toddlers with ASD, this behavior appeared to be primarily driven by attention to the scene’s physical contingencies (movement and sound). 


While toddlers with ASD differed significantly from their TD peers in measures of gaze responsivity and social monitoring, toddlers with ASD did at times shift their gaze between characters and did, although at reduced frequency, appear to respond to some joint attention cues. However, these superficial similarities in behavior actually masked a more important distinction: different underlying processes drove these behaviors within each group. This phenomenon underscores the importance of investigating the underlying processes that give rise to manifest behaviors in order to understand and predict developmental trajectories in autism.

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