Joint Attention Behaviors Across Contexts in Young Children with ASD

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
K. M. Walton and R. Kirchner, The Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
Background:  Young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show early-emerging impairments in joint attention. During both naturalistic observations and structured assessments, they show fewer joint attention behaviors, such as pointing, showing, and following another person’s gaze or pointing gesture. Joint attention is a particularly important skill, as it is thought to underlie the development of more sophisticated language and social skills later in development. Despite the importance of joint attention in development, quantifying joint attention in young children still remains challenging. Two of the most frequent strategies for measuring joint attention include the use of the Early Social Communication Scales (ESCS) and coding of specific joint attention behaviors from videotaped interaction in more naturalistic settings (e.g., free play or a parent-child interaction). Children with ASD appear to use fewer joint attention behaviors than typical children in both structured and unstructured play contexts. However, is unclear how children’s joint attention behaviors compare across these contexts, or how patterns of visual attention to people and objects during these interactions relates to children’s use of higher-level joint attention behaviors, such as pointing and showing. 

Objectives:  This study will compare children’s joint-attention related gaze behaviors across two contexts—a parent-child interaction and the Early Social Communication Scales. In addition, we will examine how visual attention (i.e., gaze at people at objects) in each context relates to children’s scores on measures of higher- and lower-level joint attention behaviors during the ESCS.  

Methods:  Young children with ASD (N=12) and typical development (N=17) participated in two videotaped assessments: the ESCS and a 10-minute parent-child interaction. Gaze behaviors (gaze at objects and gaze at people) were then coded from videotape to determine the frequency and duration of different gaze types, and the frequency of gaze switches between objects and people. In addition, higher-level (e.g., pointing, showing) and lower-level (e.g., gaze alternation) joint attention behaviors were scored from the ESCS.

Results:  Preliminary analyses suggest that there are marked differences in gaze patterns between the ESCS and the parent-child interaction context, with both typically developing children and children with ASD engaging in many fewer object-person gaze shifts during the parent-child interaction compared to the ESCS. Additional analyses with the full sample will examine the relationships between gaze behaviors in each context and joint attention scores on the ESCS to examine to what extent these measures tap the same constructs.

Conclusions:  These results highlight the importance of considering context when assessing joint attention in young children, as observations in different types of play contexts are likely to yield different numbers of joint attention behaviors. Future research should focus on understanding what types of assessment contexst yield the most useful information in relationship to diagnostic status and relationships with other key developmental skills (e.g., language, social engagement patterns).