|Webinar: In Search of Early Markers of Autism-08/08/2020|
PSI CHI LEARNING OPPORTUNITY
Dr. Katarzyna Chawarska, Director of the Social and Affective Neuroscience of Autism Program at Yale’s Child Study Center, provides a brief overview of her lab’s research on Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) in young children. She explains their recent focus on selective attention, which is being used both to identify prodromal markers and possible new treatment targets in ASD. It is well-known that children with ASD do not look at faces as much as typically developing peers. Using a variety of eye-tracking methods, Dr. Chawarska’s group identified specific deficits in selective attention to faces in toddlers with ASD and showed that pre-symptomatic infants show similar deficits months before they develop behavioral symptoms of autism. These findings suggest that the task targeting selective attention to faces represents a promising candidate biomarker for identifying risk for autism in infancy. The team then worked on discovering potential mechanisms driving poor attention to faces in young children, with a focus on investigating the concept of value learning. Essentially, selective attention is driven by the informational value of what is seen, with high value stimuli receiving enhanced attention and being prioritized for processing. The researchers investigated the process through which children with autism and typically developing controls understand value learning of social and nonsocial stimuli. They found that toddlers with autism show impairments in value learning of social stimuli such as faces, but dispenhanced value learning of nonsocial stimuli such as fractals. This led researchers to wonder: Is it possible for gaze-contingent training to modify young children’s attention to faces? The trial testing this hypothesis is currently under way in their laboratory. Dr. Chawarska discusses the implications of this research for development of discriminant and prognostic biomarker, as well as for identification of new treatment targets.