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Social Development in Autism


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.