A quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

The Autism Research Review International is quarterly publication of the Autism Research Institute

Summer, 2019 | Number 3, Volume 33

Joint attention impaired in infants who develop ASD

Adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) show impairments in joint attention—the ability to share a focus on an object or event with another person—and a new study suggests that this problem is already present in infancy. 

Pär Nyström and colleagues investigated joint attention skills in 112 10-month-old infants. Eighty-one of the infants were at increased risk for ASD because they had an older sibling with ASD, while 31 were low-risk controls. At follow-up, when the children were 36 months old, 22 of the children in the high-risk group had developed ASD. 

The researchers tested the infants using activities designed to elicit joint attention. During the activities, they used an eye tracker to determine where the infants looked. 

The researchers found, surprisingly, that the infants with ASD did not have impairments in responding to another person’s initiation of a joint attention episode. However, they found that rates of initiating joint attention were lower in infants later diagnosed with ASD than in low-risk children or high-risk children who did not develop ASD. In addition, they say, rates of initiating joint attention “followed an atypical developmental trajectory from 10 to 18 months.” 

“These results suggest children with autism, as infants, may not themselves create as many opportunities for social learning as other children,” study coauthor Terje FalckYtter comments. “The differences were rather subtle, but fully detectable with modern eye tracking technology.” However, he adds, “It is important to note that the results demonstrated significant group differences only, and it is too early to say whether the method can facilitate early detection in a clinical context.”


“Joint attention in infancy and the emergence of autism,” Pär Nyström, Emilia Thorup, Sven Bölte, and Terje Falck-Ytter, Biological Psychiatry, May 2019. Address: Terje Falck-Ytter,  [email protected]


 “Infants later diagnosed with autism follow adults’ gaze, but seldom initiate joint attention themselves,” Elin Bäckström, Medical Xpress, May 22, 2019.