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PLoS One. 2017 Jun 9;12(6):e0178859. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0178859. eCollection 2017.

Social orienting and joint attention in preschoolers with autism spectrum disorders.

Author information

Developmental Imaging and Psychopathology Lab, University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland.
Department of Psychology and Education (FPSE), University of Geneva, Geneva, Switzerland.
Department of Medical Genetics, Geneva University Medical School, Geneva, Switzerland.
Stanford Cognitive & Systems Neuroscience Laboratory, Stanford University, Palo Alto, United States of America.


Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) orient less to socially salient stimuli, such as dynamic social images, than typically developing children. In turn, this lack of social orienting is thought to impair affected individuals' socio communicative development. Here, we aim to explore the relationship between time spent on dynamic social images and ASD behaviors, such as joint attention and communication, in preschoolers on the autism spectrum. In this study, social orienting is measured using eye-tracking during a task consisting of side-by-side presentations of dynamic social images and dynamic geometric images. The side of the screen where each type of video was presented alternated between items to avoid visual perseveration from influencing the location of participants' first fixations. Visual exploration patterns recorded during the task from 33 preschoolers with ASD were compared with those of 27 typical developing (TD) children. Additionally, we quantified joint attention behaviors and used standardized parent reports to measure communication. We observed reduced orienting to dynamic social images in preschoolers with ASD compared to TD children. Also, ASD participants went to the dynamic social images less frequently for their first fixations. However, we observed great heterogeneity within the ASD group. ASD preschoolers who spent more time on the dynamic social images also presented more pronounced visual engagement with the dynamic social images (longer mean fixation duration and fewer saccades per second). Moreover, in the ASD group, more time spent on dynamic social images correlated with increased frequency of joint attention behaviors, which in turn correlated with improved communication skills. Our results support reduced social orienting in children with ASD, which correlated with their visual exploration patterns. Further, reduced orienting to the social world in young children with ASD is related to socio communicative deficits and should, therefore, be a focus of intervention programs as early as possible.

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