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Abnormal Face Processing in Toddlers With Autism

Toddlers with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often have difficulty focusing on peoples faces and making eye contact, but a new study by Yale School of Medicine researchers found that these same toddlers do not have difficulty looking at photographs of faces.

The researchers, led by Yale Child Study Center Assistant Professor Katarzyna Chawarska, will present their work at the International Meeting for Autism Research May 3-5 in Seattle, Washington, also found that toddlers with ASD spend most of the time examining the eyes.

This is a surprising finding, given that avoiding eye contact is one of the classic hallmarks of autism, said Chawarska. The results are preliminary and will require further replication and extension, but they suggest that pictures of faces and eyes are, by themselves, neither inherently unattractive nor inherently aversive to toddlers with ASD. Therefore, the limited attention to faces and eyes observed in natural settings may be due to the fact that faces dont stand out to them as much as other objects in the environment. There also may be heightened arousal related to the complex social and perceptual context in which faces usually occur.

The study examined visual scanning patterns and recognition of faces and abstract patterns in toddlers. The data were collected through an eye-tracking system. Chawarska said toddlers with ASD and developmental delays were impaired when recognizing faces they had seen previously.

When given time to familiarize with a picture of a face, both groups spent more time looking at the outside features of the face, such as the hair, ears and the neck compared to the their typically developing peers, said Chawarska. It is therefore likely that toddlers with disabilities were having a harder time encoding information regarding facial identity because they were simply looking less at facial features, which are of greatest help in extracting this type of informa tion. We also found it interesting that those toddlers with ASD who adopted a pattern of looking at faces which closely resembled the pattern of typical toddlers, were less socially impaired and were also better at face recognition.

Chawarska said that the next step is to closely examine the spatial and temporal characteristic of the childrens visual scanning patterns. While typical and developmentally delayed toddlers move quickly between various inner elements of the face, scanning rapidly between the left and right eye, toddlers with ASD tend to look longer at specific facial features than other children, which might signify an idiosyncratic approach to face processing specific to ASD in early development, said Chawarska.


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