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Babies with Autism View Social Scenes Differently

By Chelsea E. Toledo, M.A. on September 25, 2017
2017_09_eye tracking


Background: Humans are fundamentally social creatures. Starting in infancy, faces are critical for communicating; even before acquiring most basic skills, babies learn to “read” the emotions of others by watching their eyes and mouths. The brain's social pathway attaches meaning to social signals, motivates us to respond to social signals, and ultimately guides our social behavior.


What’s new: On July 20, 2017, the journal Nature published a study exploring the basis for how young children with and without autism spectrum disorder (ASD) processed such social information. The researchers tracked the eye movements of a total of 250 typically developing toddlers—including 82 monozygotic twins, 84 dizygotic twins, and 84 non-siblings—as they watched videos depicting social situations. They found distinct patterns in the eye tracking results based on the children’s genetics: compared to dizygotic twins, identical twins within the sample had very similar eye movements, especially when it came to their focus on eyes and mouths. Furthermore, the researchers compared eye-tracking data from 88 children with ASD. They found that the characteristic eye movement patterns in identical twins—the focus on eyes and mouths—were markedly reduced in children with ASD.


Why it’s important: In a series of well-designed experiments using eye-tracking measures, the authors of this study shed light on the genetic underpinnings of social information seeking in developing children. The researchers also provide evidence regarding how this trait may be altered in autism.

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