Looking Behavior & Autism

Looking behavior is an effective conduit for social abilities, communication skills and reasoning. Observational testing has shown children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) display atypical looking behavior, such as attending to objects rather than faces, where they miss important social interactions that aid social adaptation, language development and learning. When these distributed characteristics are modeled and quantified overtime, they become a robust predictor of autism – a neurodevelopmental condition.

In the first six months...
The ability to engage with others and learn from them from birth shapes the way we develop; thus, we tend to focus preferentially on social stimuli like facial expressions. Studies have shown that atypical social visual engagement (e.g., focus on things versus people) can be observed within the first six months of an infant’s life. These observations are predictive of a diagnosis of autism later in childhood1. Autism is a life-long condition that can profoundly affect social and communicative development and may lead to intellectual and language disabilities and severe behavior challenges.
In a landmark study of 338 typically developing and atypically developing toddlers, including a sub-set of twins, participants underwent a series of eye-tracking experiments to assess preferential attention and moment-by-moment looking behavior as they viewed dynamic social scenes. The researchers found that differences in the viewing patterns, were under strict genetic control. Moreover, these heritable viewing patterns segregated toddlers with autism from those without it.2

These and other studies3-7 defined atypical looking behavior as a neurodevelopmental endophenotype for autism and laid the foundation for understanding individual development when social visual engagement is impaired at an early age. Because social experience aids intellectual, behavioral, and communicative development, children whose attention drifts to less salient aspects of social stimuli miss opportunities for social learning and development, which accrue by the thousands over the first 2-3 years of life.

This understanding is the basis for our work and our mission to make earlier identification and treatment for ASD and related disabilities accessible to children everywhere.

  1. Jones, W. & Klin, A. Attention to eyes is present but in decline in 2–6-month-old infants later diagnosed with autism. Nature 504, 427–431 (2013)
  2. Constantino, J., Kennon-McGill, S., Weichselbaum, C., Marrus, N., Haider, A. Glowinski, A., Gillespie, S., Klaiman, C., Klin, A., Jones, W., Infant viewing of social scenes is under genetic control and is atypical in autism. Nature 2017 Jul 20; 547:340-344
  3. Rice, K., Moriuchi, J., Jones, W., & Klin, A. (2012). Parsing heterogeneity in autism spectrum disorders: visual scanning of dynamic social scenes in school-age children. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, (51)3, 238-248.
  4. Shultz, S., Klin, A. & Jones, W. Inhibition of eye blinking reveals subjective perceptions of stimulus salience. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 108, 21270–21275 (2011)
  5. Klin, A., Lin, D. J., Gorrindo, P., Ramsay, G., & Jones, W. (2009). Two-year-olds with autism fail to orient towards human biological motion but attend instead to non-social, physical contingencies. Nature, 459, 257-261.
  6. Jones, W., Carr, K., & Klin, A. (2008). Absence of preferential looking to the eyes of approaching adults predicts level of social disability in 2-year-olds with autism. Archives of General Psychiatry, 65(8), 946-54.
  7. Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R., Volkmar, F. & Cohen, D. Visual fixation patterns during viewing of naturalistic social situations as predictors of social competence in individuals with autism. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 59, 809–816 (2002)