Funded Grants

The Embodied Emergence of Social Communication : Implications for Autism in Infancy

Social communication emerges from a dynamic, complex system of embodied social interactions. Infants and parents explore the world together in a coordinated “dance” of attention, movement, and communication. Research that leverages wearable technology to quantify the dynamic, embodied nature of infant experience highlight the importance of this approach in generating new knowledge about infant development. Yet, most studies of neurodevelopmental social-communication disorders, such as autism spectrum disorder (ASD), have been highly constrained to the artificial laboratory setting. The application of head-mounted eye tracking to the study of parent-infant interactions offers novel insights into how context dynamically shapes infant experience. Disruptions in this coordinated, dynamic system could have a profound impact on the acquisition of communication skills, especially for at-risk infants. Action continuously drives and modifies infant attention, suggesting that atypical sensory-motor behavior in the early months of life may relate to a developmental cascade leading to atypical trajectories of social-communication development and ASD.

No studies to date have used head-mounted eye tracking to study the emergence of autism in infancy. The lack of research in this area is surprising in light of significant evidence for motor and attention abnormalities in infants at an elevated likelihood of ASD. Studies of autism in infancy have traditionally neglected a key component of infant cognition: dynamic, embodied experience. At present, there is an inadequate explanation of how infant behavior predicts the emergence of atypical social communication and ASD in at-risk populations. Opportunities exist for uncovering new etiological mechanisms and novel theories of change that can lead to innovative interventions for ASD in at-risk populations. Sensitive, specific measures of the dynamic system in which naturalistic, social interactions occur may reveal very early developmental vulnerabilities in ASD.

The overarching aim of this proposal is to use infant embodied experience within real-world interactional contexts to map a developmental pathway for typical and atypical social communication for infants at elevated neurodevelopmental risk. In a prospective, longitudinal design, we propose to examine coordinated attention during parent-infant interactions at 4 and 8 months of age for infants at elevated and low likelihood of ASD. First, we will identify predictive associations between dyadic and triadic coordinated attention at 4 months and triadic coordinated attention at 8 months. We will then determine the influence of motor development on coordinated attention at 4 and 8 months across ASD likelihood groups. Finally, we will examine how infant attention and movement contextualized in social interaction provide a developmental landscape for the emergence of social communication at 18 months, particularly for infants at elevated neurodevelopmental risk.

This proposal leverages wearable technology, the principal investigator’s clinical and scientific expertise in autism and longitudinal research, and a key collaboration to explore dynamic attention patterns and movement as critical early indicators of social communication and ASD. Understanding how moment-to-moment attention during naturalistic interactions is influenced by context and genetic vulnerability can delineate the role of embodied social attention in the development of autism and will pave the way for innovative interventions within the first year of life.