Attention to Face as a Predictor of Developmental Change and Treatment Outcome in Young Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Biomedicines. 2021 Aug 2;9(8):942. doi: 10.3390/biomedicines9080942.


The beneficial effect of early intervention is well described for children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Response to early intervention is, however, highly heterogeneous in affected children, and there is currently only scarce information about predictors of response to intervention. Based on the hypothesis that impaired social orienting hinders the subsequent development of social communication and interactions in children with ASD, we sought to examine whether the level of social orienting modulates treatment outcome in young children with ASD. We used eye-tracking technology to measure social orienting in a group of 111 preschoolers, comprising 95 young children with ASD and 16 children with typical development, as they watched a 29 s video of a woman engaging in child-directed speech. In line with previous studies, we report that attention to face is robustly correlated with autistic symptoms and cognitive and adaptive skills at baseline. We further leverage longitudinal data in a subgroup of 81 children with ASD and show that the level of social orienting at baseline is a significant predictor of developmental gains and treatment outcome. These results pave the way for identifying subgroups of children who show a better response to early and intensive intervention, a first step toward precision medicine for children with autism.

Keywords: autism spectrum disorders; early intervention; eye-tracking; predictors of treatment outcome; social attention.