A new study from the University of London's Birkbeck Babylab links enhanced visual perception in infants to the development of autism spectrum disorder symptoms later in life.
The 8 months since we received our daughter’s autism diagnosis, 9 years into our journey of parenting her, have felt a bit like running a marathon with absolutely no training. We were anxious at the start, and short of breath after a few minutes.
Our feet are blistered and bloody, our joints sore from the impact, our muscles pulled taught, and we feel as though our hearts might quit on us at any moment.
If we’d known then what we know now…
Although it never feels like a good time to hear that your child has a developmental disorder, we'd spent 9+ years trying to bond with our daughter. We certainly would’ve appreciated any insight into how her brain functions differently than others—how differently she might see the world around her—much earlier.
We certainly received world-class medical screenings throughout her childhood, she appeared to be reaching her milestones. She refused to speak in front of the doctor, but could be coaxed into speech while the pediatrician listened from behind a closed door. High functioning and gifted, she seemed at times precocious and at times immature. As a fairly nerdy person myself, this didn’t seem too far from normal for me.
But, according to a new study this week published in the journal Current Biology, my daughter has likely viewed the world differently since birth.
New study challenges developmental views of autism
Researchers at the Birkbeck Babylab, part of the Center for Brain and Cognitive Development at the University of London, have discovered a direct link between early differences in visual perception and symptoms of autism later in life.
The study, funded by the Medical Research Council, suggests that perceptual issues may be more central features of early autism spectrum disorder than originally thought. While many research studies have focused on language and social impairments, “finding this enhanced ability in infancy could potentially provide a more selective target for autism testing,” Dr. Rachael Bedford, Sir Henry Wellcome Postdoctoral Fellow in the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology, and Neuroscience, King's College London told nuviun.
The prominence of social interaction and communication problems later in development were very much suggestive of a specific ‘social brain’ deficit. Evidence is now accumulating for early differences in non-social motor and perceptual abilities, which calls for a reassessment of developmental theories of autism,
The Babylab researchers used an eye-tracking device to measure infant eye movements. The sample group was composed of babies considered to be at high-risk for developing autism; each had an older sibling with a confirmed autism spectrum disorder (ASD) diagnosis. According to Bedford, about 20% of younger siblings are diagnosed with autism themselves, and another 30% show symptoms of autism, but not enough for a formal diagnosis.
Taking advantage of the fact that infants will spontaneously orient their gaze to anything that pops out in a visual scene, for example, the letter S in a group of Xs, the researchers used the eye-tracking device to test perceptual skill at 9 months, 15 months, and 2 years of age.
The study showed that infants with enhanced visual searching ability at 9 months—those who noticed the out-one-out when presented with a group—also had more emergent autism symptoms at 15 months and 2 years.
“We know now that we have to give more attention to possible differences in the development of sensation and perception,” Gliga says.
It is the sensory unpredictability of social interaction, but also of many other aspects of daily life, that people with autism most often report as distressing, and we hope this study and others will bring autism research questions closer to the needs of those directly affected.
The technology is getting better, but it’s not a screening to expect from your local pediatrician soon
nuviun asked Bedford if she thought this study might lead to a new screening tool for use in future infant physical exams. Bedford noted that the eye-tracker used in their study was highly precise, and probably costs more than US $54,000. This is important, she said, because when screening babies,
you have to be responsive with infants because they might look around, get excited, or start eating. But really big advances in the last few years are bringing the prices down, so there’s great potential that this technology could be increasingly mainstream in the future.
The eye-tracker tells us where on the screen the baby is looking, which is very important when they are nine-month olds and can’t necessarily point to an object that catches their eyes. The tracker shines an imperceptible infrared light onto the baby’s face. The light that’s reflected back from the pupil tells us where the child is looking on the screen.
Bedford also cautions that right now the researchers are analyzing the eye-tracking data on a group level to link this advanced visual perception with ASD. They aren’t really at a place with this research—yet—at which diagnostic conclusions can be drawn based on an individual infant’s level of visual perception.
What we do know is that this level of attention to detail may alter an individual’s ability to see the bigger picture, which can affect language learning and social interactions, both of which are considered key aspects of autism disorder.