Bob Child/AP
Nancy Taylor plays with her autistic son, Ryan, 3, at their home in Canton, Conn., in a 2005 file

Pat-a-Cake Shows Potential for New Autism Therapies

March 31, 2009 11:30 AM
by Shannon Firth
New research focused on the attention of toddlers with autism spectrum disorders may help doctors diagnose autism sooner and design new methods of treatment.

New Insight Into Autistic Behaviors

Past studies have shown that autistic individuals focus on mouths instead of eyes when looking at faces.

A new study from Yale University based on attention behaviors in 2-year-olds watching animated videos proposes that “lip-sync,” or the fixed pairing of lip movement and the sounds of speech, may be the cause of this atypical behavior.

Dr. Ami Klin led the study at the Yale Child Study Center. The research was partially funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and was published in the journal Nature on March 29.

Usually within days after birth, WebMD reports, infants become interested in observing the movement of people around them, or “biological motion,” which aids in learning and even survival. Autistic children attend more readily to “nonsocial contingencies,” like two balls crashing into each other and making a noise.

The difference in attention has enormous repercussions. According to Science Daily, Klin said, “Toddlers with autism are missing rich social information imparted by these cues, and this is likely to adversely affect the course of their development.”

Using these observations, Klin and Dr. Warren Jones, compared the eye movements of “typically-developing” toddlers, toddlers on the autism spectrum and developmentally delayed toddlers, while a split-screen video of animated figures was played.

The video animations used a technique known as “motion capture,” where individual bodies are transformed into figures lit up only at their joints. The figure on the left was upright, while the figure on the right was reversed and upside-down.
At first, only the typically developing toddlers and developmentally delayed toddlers focused on the upright figures, while the toddlers on the autism spectrum were impartial.

However, when the animated figure began to act out a game of pat-a-cake, where the sound and motion of clapping matched the upright figure, the autistic children focused more on it than the upside down figure, as a video of the experiment illustrates.

The video captures the differences between “typical” toddlers and those categorized as on the autism spectrum. As Jones explains, “audio-visual synchrony,” or pairing of motion and sound, is responsible for 90 percent of the patterns in the attention of autistic children. This pattern is not found in other children.

Klin, Jones and their colleagues believe the results may explain why people with autism look at people’s mouths rather than their eyes, as mouths have a greater degree of audio-visual synchrony during speech than any other part of the face.

Klin and her colleagues’ future research will involve studying infants with older siblings who are on the autism spectrum. Since autism is genetically heritable, at least in part, such infants have a greater potential for the disorder. 

Klin told WebMD via e-mail, “Our hope is to detect vulnerabilities for autism as early as possible, so as to intervene with the hope to capitalize on the babies’ brain malleability.”

Related Topics: Evidence of autism’s genetic basis; Autism and vaccines

In July, researchers from the California Institute of Technology and the University of North Carolina published a study on the similarities in attention patterns between parents of autistic children and autistic children themselves.

According to Science Daily, researchers classified 15 of the 42 parents in the study as “socially aloof,” and found that aloof parents were more apt to use mouth cues rather than a subject’s eyes to read emotions.

Ralph Adolphs, one of the lead researchers, emphasized, “We are not claiming all people with autism, or their parents, are ‘impaired.’ Instead, our study shows that parents who have children with autism—like the autistic subjects themselves—are different, and do things differently.”

In recent years, parents and some researchers have pointed to a link between vaccines and the incidence of autism.

In February, a U.S. court ruled against three families who believe a vaccine caused their children’s autism. The decision supports expert opinion, but many parents still believe there is a connection.

Reference: Autism


Most Recent Beyond The Headlines