Autism is common, with 1 in 68 children receiving an autism-spectrum diagnosis. Parents, medical providers, and other caregivers are often overwhelmed by the struggles children with autism face. Autism comes with its own set of skills, too, and a new study may have uncovered a new autism skill. The study, published in Current Biology, suggests that babies who later develop autism may have superior perceptual skills.
Autism and Differences in Perception
It’s common for people with autism to report differences in perception, especially strong attention to detail. Artist Stephen Wiltshire, for instance, draws highly detailed cityscapes entirely from memory. The authors of the latest study on autism and perception believe that these perceptual changes may be a hallmark of autism, rather than just an interesting byproduct.
Since autism cannot be diagnosed in very young babies, researchers worked with babies who had a higher risk of autism due to a sibling’s diagnosis. About 20% of children whose older siblings have autism receive an autism-spectrum diagnosis. An additional 30% show some symptoms of autism. Scientists used an eye tracker to follow babies’ gazes as they viewed letters on a screen. They also assessed the children for signs of autism at 9, 15, and 24 months. Previous research has shown that babies tend to look longer at novel stimuli and things that seem out of place. For example, a Y in a sea of Rs might draw a baby’s attention. Thus eye movement tracking is one way to explore what babies notice.
Babies who were highly skilled at visual searching at 9 months had more symptoms of autism at 15 and 24 months.
Are Differences in Perception an Early Autism Sign?
People with autism sometimes experience distressing differences in perception. For instance, the frayed cotton of a sock might be very painful for a child with autism, or the ambient noises outside a classroom might make it difficult for an autistic teen to concentrate. The authors of this study suggest that the sensory overload associated with social interactions might actually be the reason many people with autism are uncomfortable in social situations.
For now, the team suggests that eye-tracking devices could be effective early autism screening tools. They plan to conduct future research to assess why and how autism changes visual perception, in addition to researching the role perceptual overload might play in difficulties with social skills.
Infants’ superior perception linked to later autism symptoms. (2015, June 11). Retrieved from http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/06/150611122950.htm
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