Infants' superior perception discovered as predictor of autism symptoms
Enhanced visual search abilities in infancy can predict the development of autism symptoms in later childhood, according to a study by Birkbeck, University of London, and King’s College London’s Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology & Neuroscience (IoPPN).
This newly discovered link could prove useful in early autism detection - before the onset of clinical symptoms.
The study, published in Current Biology today investigated superior perception - a common symptom of autism, which is often observed in addition to core symptoms such as social interaction and communication difficulties, plus restricted and repetitive behaviours.
The methodology involved studying infants known to be at higher risk of autism based on the diagnosis of an older sibling*. To study these infants’ perceptual skills, the researchers used an eye tracker to record their gazes as they were presented with ‘odd-one-out’ tests involving letters.
Alongside this, the participants were assessed for signs of autism at nine-months, 15 months, and two years of age using standard screening methods.
The results showed that infants with enhanced visual searching ability at nine-months old also had more emergent autism symptoms at 15 months and at two years. The findings suggest that the unusual perceptual ability of those infants is intrinsically linked to the emerging autism symptoms.
Previously, the majority of research studies into early autism detection have focused on language and social interaction impairments. However, the researchers behind this new study say the findings may shift scientists’ view of autism by suggesting that changes in perception are a central feature of the disorder.
Dr Teodora Gliga of Birkbeck’s Babylab and a principal author of the study, said: 'The prominence of social interaction and communication problems later in development were very much suggestive of a specific ‘social brain’ deficit. Evidence is now accumulating for early differences in non-social motor and perceptual abilities, which calls for a reassessment of developmental theories of autism.'
The new study also suggests that eye-tracking may be useful as part of future batteries of screening tests for early signs of autism.
Dr Gliga continued: 'We know now that we have to give more attention to possible differences in the development of sensation and perception.
'It is the sensory unpredictability of social interaction, but also of many other aspects of daily life, that people with autism most often report as distressing, and we hope this study and others will bring autism research questions closer to the needs of those directly affected.'
Dr Rachael Bedford, Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow at the IoPPN, said: 'People with autism have both difficulties and strengths. We know some of the profile of difficulties can be detected fairly early in life, but this study shows that unusual strengths can also be seen in infants. Further research work is required to understand how early signs alone and in combination might help us to identify infants who will go on to have autism.'
Moving forward, the researchers plan to explore what exactly makes children with autism better at visual searches. They also want to explore the links between increased visual perception or attention and difficulties in social interaction, learning, and communication.
Birkbeck’s Babylab is currently seeking participants for further studies in this area. To find out more, visit www.cbcd.bbk.ac.uk/babylab
Notes to editors
* Around 20% of younger siblings are diagnosed with autism themselves, and another 30% show elevated levels of autism symptoms.
Gliga, T et al. (2015) 'Enhanced visual search in infancy predicts emerging autism symptoms' Current Biology
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