The eyes of another can tell a story: fright, anger, displeasure, interest, curiosity. The ease with which most people can read others from a simple eye-to-eye glance is astounding, for there are few systems of visual perception and cognition as specialized and complex. To a child with autism, however, the story can be quite different. Our recent work examines relationship between gaze processing and social dysfunction in infants and toddlers with autism.
For a long time it has been known that the face is accorded a special status in typical development so much so that a newborn prefers looking at faces rather than other objects and within several months becomes skills in recognizing and categorizing faces. In children with autism however, the development of face processing might follow a different course. Several projects in our lab examine differences in face scanning and recognition between children with autism and their unaffected peers.
Social dysfunction is a defining characteristic of autism. Elementary ability to relate to others is apparent within the first hours of life, and yet the set of skills necessary to navigate complex social landscape continues to develop throughout childhood and adolescence. Our behavioral studies are focused on the earliest signs of social difficulties in the first year of life that involve ability to engage in dyadic social exchanges as well as the ability to communicate with others using eye contact, affect, gestures, and vocalizations.
Despite the fact that symptoms of autism typically manifest by the second birthday, diagnosis and treatment are often delayed for months if not years. However, by identifying the disorder and initiating treatment early we might be able to capitalize on increased brain plasticity during the first years of life and improve the overall outcomes. Work in our lab facilitates directly early symptom detection and identification of predictors of outcome by. Our eye-tracking and behavioral studies on younger siblings of children with autism aim directly at identifying markers of the disorder in the first year of life.