with increased social adaptation suggests that increased attention to interactive partners may predict lesser symptom severity, but not necessarily greater level of social competence among high-risk infants.The period between 6 and 12 months is marked by the emergence of dyadic engagement, social referencing, and joint attention skills, the social–cognitive skills that are prototypically impaired in toddlers with ASD.14This is also a period of rapid specialization in face46and voice47recognition along with development of audiovisual speech perception,48and, considering that learning is an experience-dependent process, even a small alteration in the type and availability of learning opportunities may have cascading developmental effects.49,50Links between overall attention to a social scene in infancy and later developmental outcomes have been reported in typically developing children51as well as amongst those with ASD. Specifically, limited orienting to social partners in infancy is associated with later ASD diagnoses amongst high-risk siblings24-26and greater severity of autism symptoms amongst clinic-referred toddlers with ASD.21We hypothesize that the enhanced orienting to social stimuli observed in high-risk females may serve as a protective factor by providing increased access to critical social experiences in early development. Although enhanced social orienting in females may not prevent ASD from emerging in some cases, it may mitigate the deleterious effects of the pathogenic factors associated with ASD, consequently placing high-risk female infants on a different developmental trajectory than high-risk males.Our study suggests that the attentional system in high-risk female infants is tuned to favor faces and scenes containing people. What might be driving such behavior? A recent study aimed at decomposing the latent structure of gaze behaviors in toddlers with ASD or TD in response to a task identical to that used in the current study revealed that gaze is driven by two sets of orthogonal factors: (1) a non-specific factor related to attention to dynamic social Chawarska et al.Page 8J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. Author manuscript; available in PMC 2018 February 15.Author ManuscriptAuthor ManuscriptAuthor ManuscriptAuthor Manuscript
scenes in general (i.e., looking at or away from the scene), and (2) a set of context-specific factors facilitating selection for processing the most informative social features within the scene (e.g., selecting a face rather than toys when an actress is speaking, or selecting hands rather than face when she performs an action).23Compared to TD controls, toddlers with ASD exhibited multilevel differences involving both domain-general and domain-specific factors. Current models of gaze behavior in dynamic environments stress the roles of behavioral relevance (i.e., costs and benefits of gaze behaviors in acquisition of goal-relevant information, linked with the reward system) and prior knowledge (i.e., learned models of the
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