Looking Behavior & Autism

From a very early age, we learn and grow by observing and interpreting shared experiences. Through social interaction, we begin to assess words, vocal tone, facial expressions and other cues that help us understand our world. This focus, or looking behavior, plays an important role in our social development, communication skills and reasoning.

In the first six months

The looking behavior of children with autism tends to differ, such as focusing on objects rather than faces, with important learning opportunities being missed in every social interaction. 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. By measuring these missed opportunities overtime, we can determine where a child is on the spectrum so that parents and providers know how to work with an individual child for the greatest developmental gains.

In a landmark study of 338 typically developing and atypically developing toddlers, including a large set of identical and fraternal 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 natural viewing patterns segregated toddlers with autism from those without it.2

These and other studies3-8 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 situations 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 autism 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. Shultz, S., Klin, A. & Jones, W. (2018). Neonatal transitions in social behavior and their implications for autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 22(5):452-469.
4. 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.
5. 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)
6. 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.
7. 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.
8. 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)

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