Children With Autism Exhibit Typical Joint Attention During Toy Play With a Parent

Summary: Young children on the autism spectrum achieved joint attention comparable to that of a neurotypical child when they played with their parents.

Source: Mobile press

For decades, autism research has been based on data collected during lab tasks or interviews with clinicians that are more limited than the child’s day-to-day interactions with others.

A study published in the journal current biology on May 12 challenges the status quo by observing toddlers in more natural play environments.

By using a head-mounted camera to track children’s eye movements as they played with toys, scientists noticed that children with autism gained joint attention — measured by the time they spent looking at the same toy at the same time as their parent – at a typical level.

To understand how children interact with social partners in a more comfortable and natural environment, Julia Yurkovic-Harding, an autism researcher at Indiana University, was one of the first to use a dual head-mounted eye-tracking method on children. with autism to study social interactions. between the children and their parents.

“The head-mounted eye tracking allows us to get precision in measuring their visual attention and manual action, but allows us to let the kids play more naturally,” said Yurkovic-Harding, the co- first author of the study.

Children who fall on the autism spectrum often have trouble following the eyes of a social partner. This behavior, called gaze tracking, is an important part of how autism researchers tend to define collaborative attention.

However, researchers using head-mounted eye tracking to study the development of normally developing children recently found that children don’t often look at their parents’ faces when they play with toys together.

This means that gaze tracking may not be an available cue to gain joint attention in a more natural setting. Instead, typically developing children follow the hands of their parents, who often touch or hold toys, as a way of knowing what their parent is watching.

A review of data collected during play sessions with a group of 50 children ages 2 to 4 found that autistic children maintained their joint attention at a level consistent with their neurotypical peers.

Children who fall on the autism spectrum often have trouble following the eyes of a social partner. Image is in the public domain

These results were exciting for Yurkovic-Harding. “Anytime you find something that’s typical and intact in kids with autism, there’s this opportunity to explore,” she says. In addition, the children with autism also used hand-following rather than gaze-following cues to follow their parents’ attention in joint attention.

Experiences where a child focuses on an activity, such as playing with a toy truck or building with blocks, with a parent are believed to support language development.

The current study found that parents of children with autism spectrum disorder were more likely to mention toys when they paid attention together than when they didn’t look at the same toys.

Yurkovic-Harding and her team hope that by identifying the times when children with autism can play in more typical ways, adults can encourage autistic children to do more of these activities and enable more opportunities for learning.

“We must make an effort to understand the everyday lives of individuals with autism, the social pressures they face on a daily basis, and the social context in which they interact with each other so that we can help them to exist in the social world that all around us is in a way that is comfortable and confident for them,” she says.

About this ASD research news

Writer: press office
Source: Mobile press
Contact: Press agency – Cell Press
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original research: Open access.
“Children with ASD draw joint attention during free-flowing toys without facial expressions” by Julia Yurkovic-Harding et al. current biology


Also see

This shows a newborn baby

Children with ASD draw joint attention during free-flowing toys without facial expressions


  • Children with ASD have joint attention at frequent and typical levels while playing with toys
  • Like TD dyads, ASD dyads follow hands (rather than eyes) to draw joint attention
  • In both groups, parents more often mention toys during moments of joint attention
  • These results raise questions about the significance of joint attention deficits in ASD


Children’s ability to share attention with another person (ie receive joint attention) is crucial for learning about their environment in general and for supporting language and object learning in particular.

While joint attention (YES) related to autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is often more narrowly operationalized as arising from gaze or explicit cues alone, recent evidence shows that JA in natural settings can be more broadly achieved through multiple avenues other than gaze and gesture.

Here we use dual head-mounted eye tracking to investigate pathways to and features of JA episodes during free-flowing parent-child toys, comparing children with ASD with typically developing (TD) children. Moments of YES were objectively defined if both the child’s and the parent’s gaze were on the same object at the same time.

Consistent with previous work with TD childrenwe found that both TD and ASD children rarely look at their parents’ faces in this unstructured free play context. Nevertheless, both groups achieved comparably high rates of JA far exceeding chance, suggesting alternative routes to JA are used. We characterize these alternative routes, find that they occur at similar levels in both groups and achieve similar goals: namely, for both groups, targets of JA are mentioned more often by parents at those times than objects not visited jointly.

These findings broaden the conceptualization of JA skills and disabilities in ASD and raise questions regarding the mechanistic role of the face-gaze-mediated JA pathway in ASD.

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