Social Orienting, Joint Attention, and Empathy: Impacts of Early Impairments on Subsequent Social Development

Saturday, May 14, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
A. C. Dowd, B. G. Davidson and A. R. Neal-Beevers, Psychology, University of Texas at Austin, Austin, TX

Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is characterized by deficits in social skills that develop early in infancy, including impairments in social orienting, joint attention, and empathy (Dawson et al., 2004).  Early impairments in attending to social situations are posited to deprive children of social information that subsequently limits the development of other social skills (Mundy & Neal, 2001). Understanding how these early social skills build incrementally upon each other is crucial for building a developmental model of ASD, identifying target areas for intervention, and establishing a timeframe for beginning early interventions.  


Identify the extent to which concurrent social orienting and joint attention skills predict infants’ empathic responses at 12 and 15 months. 


Eighteen high-risk and 15 low-risk infant siblings were assessed longitudinally at 12- and 15-months-of-age for: 1) Attention and Affect responses to a standard empathy paradigm (Hutman et al., 2010); 2) Responding to and Initiating Joint Attention (RJA and IJA, respectively; Early Social Communication Scales; Mundy et al., 2003); 3) deficits in social orienting (FailToOrient) based on ‘Orients to Name’ (Autism Observation Scale for Infants; Bryson et al., 2008) and ‘Responds to Name’ (Bayley, 2006). Linear mixed-effects models were conducted separately for Attention and Affect as outcome variables, with RJA, IJA, FailToOrient, Age, and all possible two-way interactions as predictors.  Models were optimized by removing non-significant interactions and main effects when their removal reduced the Akaike Information Criterion.  


Attention: Significant RJA-by-Age and FailToOrient-by-Age interactions suggest that Attention at 12 months did not vary by RJA or FailToOrient.  However, Attention at 15 months was lower for infants with low RJA scores or who failed to orient to their name.  Furthermore, a significant RJA-by-FailToOrient interaction suggests that failing to orient to name did not affect Attention in infants with strong RJA skills; however, for infants with low RJA scores, Attention was even lower for infants who also failed to orient to name.

Affect: A significant RJA-by-Age interaction and marginally significant FailToOrient-by-Age interaction suggest that Affect at 12 months did not vary by RJA or FailToOrient. By 15 months, however, Affect was higher in infants with stronger RJA skills and marginally stronger for infants who oriented to their name. 


As empathy develops between 12 and 15 months, infants with deficits in RJA or social orienting also attend less and display less affect to another’s distress. Attention was even lower when infants had deficits in both RJA and social orienting. However, infants attended more when they exhibited the more advanced skill (RJA) regardless of whether or not they failed the developmentally easier skill (social orienting).  Together these findings help us understand how these social skills develop in relation to each other and may inform early intervention strategies.