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Study links enhanced perception in babies to later autism symptoms

Findings underscore autism-related strengths as well as sensitivities that can produce challenges
June 11, 2015

People with autism often describe themselves as "seeing the world differently." Many show a heightened perception of detail – as seen in the art of Stephen Wiltshire with its astonishingly accurate cityscapes drawn from memory. Now, researchers have found that such heightened perception is often present in infancy – long before the appearance of autism’s obvious symptoms.

The report appears today in the journal Current Biology.

The findings serve as a reminder of the strengths that often accompany autism’s challenges. They also add to the growing evidence that autism-related difficulties with social interaction – which tend to become obvious around age 2 – may stem from earlier differences in attention and perception. These may include greater interest in non-social experiences (spinning wheels, moving cars, etc.) and a general over-sensitivity to sights, sounds and other sensory input.

“Researchers are finding more and more evidence that people with autism perceive things differently,” comments developmental pediatrician Paul Wang, Autism Speaks’ head of medical research. “For some, these differences will support unique talents and creativity that deserve to be celebrated. But these differences can also create challenges that call for greater understanding and support.” Dr. Wang was not involved in the study.

The researchers, from the University of London and Kings College London, worked with 82 infants at high risk for autism because they were born into families already affected by it. Around 20 percent younger siblings of children with autism themselves develop the condition. Another 30 percent develop some autism symptoms but aren’t so severely affected that they receive a diagnosis. The study also included 27 babies at low risk of developing autism (no older sibling on the autism spectrum) as a comparison group.

All the infants were around 9 months old at the start of the study.

The researchers took advantage of the fact that infants tend to focus on anything new in a visual scene. Take, for example, the letter S appearing in a group of X's. Using a gaze-tracking device, they measured how quickly the babies spotted such a change in a video animation. (See video below.)

The researchers then used a standard behavioral checklist to assess the children for emerging behavioral symptoms of autism at 9 months, 15 months and 2 years of age. The researchers did not look at autism diagnosis, per se, because the determination is not always possible at 2 years of age.

Their finding: As a group, the infants who showed heightened visual perception abilities at 9 months had significantly higher levels of autism symptoms at both 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,” says lead researcher Teodora Gliga. "It is the sensory unpredictability of not only social interaction but also of many other aspects of daily life, that people with autism most often report as distressing.” The researchers plan to continue their research by exploring possible links between increased visual perception and difficulties in social interaction, learning and communication. They also urged research to advance understanding of how differences in brain function may underlie this heightened ability.

Editor’s note: Autism Speaks celebrates the talents of individuals with autism and is helping match individuals on the spectrum with employers who need these special skills. Learn more at The Spectrum Careers, a jobs portal created by Autism Speaks in collaboration with Rangam Consultants.

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