Joint Attention in Infancy and the Emergence of Autism

Pär Nyström, Emilia Thorup, Sven Bölte, Terje Falck-Ytter

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31 Citations (SciVal)


Background: In typical infant development, parents and their children jointly contribute to establishing frequent episodes of joint attention that boost language acquisition and shape social cognition. Here we used novel live eye-tracking technology to evaluate the degree to which autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is related to reduced responding to others’ joint attention bids in infancy (RJA) and to a reduced tendency to initiate joint attention episodes (IJA). Because young infants use their gaze for both RJA and IJA, this approach allowed us to quantify these elusive processes early in life. Methods: The final sample consisted of 112 infants (54 boys and 58 girls), of whom 81 were at familial risk for ASD and 31 were typically developing low-risk infants. At follow-up (36 months of age), 22 children in the high-risk group were diagnosed with ASD. Results: At 10 months of age, rates of IJA were lower in infants later diagnosed with ASD than in the comparison groups (effect sizes d = 0.78–0.95) and followed an atypical developmental trajectory from 10 to 18 months (p < .002). RJA distinguished infants based on familial ASD risk, albeit not ASD diagnosis. The differences in IJA could not be explained by overall looking time, social preference, eye movement latencies, or number of fixations. Conclusions: This live eye-tracking study suggests that during an important period for the development of social cognition (10–18 months of age), infants later diagnosed with ASD show marked atypicalities in IJA but not in RJA. The results indicate that IJA is an important target for future prodromal intervention trials.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)631-368
JournalBiological Psychiatry
Issue number8
Early online date2019 May 15
Publication statusPublished - 2019

Subject classification (UKÄ)

  • Psychiatry


  • Biomarker
  • Neurodevelopmental disorders
  • Parent–child interaction
  • Prodromal intervention
  • Reward processing
  • Social cognition


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