Social Development in Autism

Introduction

Autism is first and foremost a neurodevelopmental disorder impacting on foundational social adaptive skills. This lecture focuses on the emergence of highly conserved and early emerging mechanisms of socialization and their disruption in infants and toddlers with autism spectrum disorders.

The vast genetic and behavioral variability in autism necessitates better quantification of social behavior as a bridge between new genetic findings and the behavioral manifestations of this condition. Our lab has been developing methods to quantify early predispositions to orient to social signals such as the expressive eyes of caregivers and their communicative and emotional gestures. Our ultimate goal is to develop ‘growth charts’ of social engagement in typical children and to use these benchmarks to identify the earliest deviation from typical developmental paths. In this fashion, we hope to create objectified and quantified methods for early detection of risk for autism. This will, in turn, help us in our effort to deploy early intervention and treatment programs likely to optimize children’s development at a time of great brain malleability.

Our methods are first introduced in the context of eye-tracking studies of social attention to naturalistic social interactions in adolescents, and then illustrated in the context of studies of infants and toddlers. The focus will be on visual entrainment to the eyes of others and preferential attention to biological motion, which refers to movements of living beings – in our case, these are movements representing human action and inter-action.

Featured Reading

The featured reading for the Social Brain in Autism lecture comes from:

Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R.T., Volkmar, F.R. The Enactive Mind – from actions to cognition: Lessons from autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, 2003. 358:345-360.

This conceptual review provides a description of the selective disabilities in social adaptive functioning in individuals with autism spectrum disorders, and how this profile determines social neuroscience and clinical science priorities for future research on social mind and social brain.

Read the full text article at the PubMed Central website.

Reading List

Below are selected readings from the Social Brain in Autism class meeting as well as a short annotation from Prof. Klin on the reading material and links to find the reading online.

Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R.T., Volkmar, F.R. The Enactive Mind – from actions to cognition: Lessons from autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Biological Sciences, 2003. 358:345-360.

This conceptual review provides a description of the selective disabilities in social adaptive functioning in individuals with autism spectrum disorders, and how this profile determines social neuroscience and clinical science priorities for future research on social mind and social brain.

Read the full article at the PubMed Central website.

Jones, W., & Klin, A. Heterogeneity and homogeneity across the autism spectrum: the role of development. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. 2009, 48(5):471-3.

This review provides a conceptual framework for understanding how phenotypic and genotypic heterogeneity in autism spectrum disorders may be reconciled with the more clinically recognizable unitary, albeit variable, presentation of individuals with this condition.

Klin A, Jones W. Altered face scanning and impaired recognition of biological motion in a 15-month-old infant with autism. Dev Science. 2008, 11(1):40-6.

This is a research case report of a very young toddler with autism bringing together two developmentally early-emerging and evolutionarily well-conserved construct that are key for the understanding of the ontogeny of social engagement and its disruption in autism.

View the Abstract at the PubMed website.

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.

This study focuses on a fundamental mechanism of social-adaptive engagement that is apparent in human newborns as well as in a wide range of other species. Visual biases to biological motion – the movement of living beings, is present in newly hatched chicks and is known to play a role in filial attachment (e.g., imprinting). It is a precursor of our ability to process social-communicative movements as well as of our ability to attribute intentionality to others. This study shows how this mechanism is disrupted in toddlers with autism spectrum disorders, and how their attenuated orientation to social signals leads to visual engagement with other, physical not social, contingencies in their surrounding environment.

Read the Author Manuscript at the PubMed Central website.

Chapter 2, What Causes Autism? from "A Practical Guide to Autism".

Volkmar, Fred; Wiesner, Lisa. "A Practical Guide to Autism". John Wiley & Sons, Inc. New Jersey, 2009.

Find this book online at the Publisher's website.

Media and Other Resources

External Resources

New Developments in Autism Spectrum Disorders- University of California Television
Eric Hollander, M.D., of the Mount Sinai School of Medicine discusses the underlying neurobiology of repetitive behavior and social deficits in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). He also discusses new treatments for repetitive and disruptive behavior and social and neurocognitive deficits.

Toddler brain difference linked to autism- CNN
Researchers at the University of North Carolina have found that the area of the brain known as the amygdala is on average 13% larger in young children with autism, compared with a control group of children without autism. The amygdala is responsible for emotional processing.

Psychosis and autism as diametrical disorders of the social brain- Bernard Crespi and Christopher Badcock
Bernard Crespi, Ph.D., and Christopher Badcock, Ph.D., present evidence that the phenotypic traits exhibited in Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) are diametrically opposite of those exhibited in psychoses, especially schizophrenia. These traits include aspects of social cognition, local vs. global processing, language, and behavior.

Faculty and Guest Bios

Bio Profile

Ami Klin

Harris Professor of Child Psychology and Psychiatry

Ami Klin, Ph.D. is the Harris Professor of Child Psychology and Psychiatry at the Yale Child Study Center. He obtained his Ph.D. from the University of London, and completed clinical and research post-doctoral fellowships at the Yale Child Study Center. 

He directs the Autism Program at Yale, which is one of the designated National Institutes of Health Autism Centers of Excellence. This program includes a broad range of diagnostic and treatment services, and an interdisciplinary program of...

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