Thorup E, Nyström P, Bölte S, Falck-Ytter T.
Autism. 2022 Oct;26(7):1668-1680. doi: 10.1177/13623613211061940. Epub 2021 Dec 14.
During the first year of life, infants start to align their attention with that of other people. This ability is called joint attention and facilitates social learning and language development. Although children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are known to engage less in joint attention compared to other children, several experimental studies have shown that they follow other’s gaze (a requirement for visual joint attention) to the same extent as other children. In this study, infants’ eye movements were measured at age 10, 14, and 18 months while watching another person look in a certain direction. A target object was either present or absent in the direction of the other person’s gaze. Some of the infants were at elevated likelihood of ASD, due to having an older autistic sibling. At age 3 years, infants were assessed for a diagnosis of ASD. Results showed that infants who met diagnostic criteria at 3 years followed gaze to the same extent as other infants. However, they then looked back at the model faster than typically developing infants when no target object was present. When a target object was present, there was no difference between groups. These results may be in line with the view that directly after gaze following, infants with later ASD are less influenced by other people’s gaze when processing the common attentional focus. The study adds to our understanding of both the similarities and differences in looking behaviors between infants who later receive an ASD diagnosis and other infants.