Autistic Infants Lack Social Impulses
> 3/31/2009 1:33:13 PM

The latest development in autism research concludes that autistic children display a lack of basic social instincts very early in their lives and that their long-term development is affected accordingly. While the attentions of most toddlers immediately follow the movements of the people surrounding them, autistic children seem far more interested in the occurrence of visual patterns and synchronized sounds.

Affected children miss the most basic lessons of social interaction in this crucial formative period. They lack the impulsive desire to be near their parents and providers that may be observed across species. While most children instinctually seek out their caretakers due to a state of total dependence, autistic children seem to lack this impulse. Their pronounced lack of interest in communicating with others leads to social isolation in adolescence and adulthood. It also impedes personal development and complicates an educational environment where socialization is required. 

Researchers presented an animated point-light show for a group of 2-year-old children and observed their reactions by tracking their eye movements. The images in the show were designed, via motion capture technology, to precisely mimic the movements of human adults reading nursery rhymes and performing other activities. In subsequent displays researchers manipulated the images to render them less recognizable. Their results were clear: while control-group kids lost interest in the imagery once it grew more abstract, autistic children were most transfixed by moments of synchrony such as the occurrence of a sound when the onscreen figures clapped their hands. 

This attraction to non-social cues reveals the major difference between the two groups of children: most carry a predisposition toward socialization, but autistic infants do not. Where control-group kids are drawn to “biological motion,” the movement of other living beings (or images thereof), the autistic children included in this study were far more interested in cases of sensory coincidence. Researchers believe this initial anomaly to be the driving force behind many of autism’s signature traits: one example is an observed tendency for autistic individuals to look at the mouth, rather than the eyes, of someone who’s addressing them because the mouth follows a more observable pattern. These tics lead to a pronounced difficulty in reading facial expressions and interpreting the emotions and intentions of others. Apparent in this study’s autistic subjects were the beginnings of a lifelong attraction to arbitrary patterns at the expense of communication and social reasoning skills.

Like most developments in the autism field, this fascinating study’s larger implications remain unclear. Most significantly, it will reinforce the importance of early screening that allows experts to treat and examine increasingly younger children in an attempt to identify and minimize the condition’s roots. Treatment methods cannot be developed without that in-depth research.

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