Altered gaze following during live interaction in infants at risk for autism: An eye tracking study
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Background: The ability to follow gaze is an important prerequisite for joint attention, which is often compromised in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The direction of both the head and eyes provides cues to other people's attention direction, but previous studies have not separated these factors and their relation to ASD susceptibility. Development of gaze following typically occurs before ASD diagnosis is possible, and studies of high-risk populations are therefore important. Methods: Eye tracking was used to assess gaze following during interaction in a group of 10-month-old infants at high familial risk for ASD (high-risk group) as well as a group of infants with no family history of ASD (low-risk group). The infants watched an experimenter gaze at objects in the periphery. Performance was compared across two conditions: one in which the experimenter moved both the eyes and head toward the objects (Eyes and Head condition) and one that involved movement of the eyes only (Eyes Only condition). Results: A group by condition interaction effect was found. Specifically, whereas gaze following accuracy was comparable across the two conditions in the low-risk group, infants in the high-risk group were more likely to follow gaze in the Eyes and Head condition than in the Eyes Only condition. Conclusions: In an ecologically valid social situation, responses to basic non-verbal orienting cues were found to be altered in infants at risk for ASD. The results indicate that infants at risk for ASD may rely disproportionally on information from the head when following gaze and point to the importance of separating information from the eyes and the head when studying social perception in ASD.
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