Children with autism who have different verbal and intellectual abilities seem to glean useful social information from different parts of the face, according to the largest-ever eye-tracking study of the disorder.
These differences suggest that children with autism adapt to their environment based on their specific strengths and weaknesses, the researchers say.
The findings, published in the March issue of the Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, illustrate both the importance and the challenges of studying differences among people with autism.
“Different people have different compensatory strategies to navigate the demands of social life,” says lead investigator Ami Klin, chief of the division of autism and related disorders at Emory University School of Medicine in Atlanta.
Experts applaud the study for taking an approach that’s only beginning to gain traction in the autism field: parsing the notoriously diverse disorder into smaller groups of children that share a particular trait, such as verbal ability. Doing so could help pinpoint new imaging or genetic biomarkers, and could help clinicians choose effective treatments, researchers say.
“The study highlights that any interventions that are used need to be specific to the child in question,” says Gwyneth Doherty-Sneddon, professor of psychology at Northumbria University in the U.K., who was not involved with the new study. “There are important individual differences, so an intervention that might work well with one group of children is not going to work well with another group.”
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