Funded Grants

Understanding the everyday visual experiences of young children with motor difficulties: The case of Down syndrome

Action is at the core of human development. Even young infants actively sample and select aspects of their environment by moving their eyes, and later by reaching towards people and objects and eventually locomoting. Thus, young children actively construct their visual datasets for learning. But many children (especially those with neurodevelopmental disorders) experience pervasive perturbations in the motor system. Here we ask: how might motor difficulties constrain the everyday visual experiences of young children?

The literature is replete with assumptions (including our own!) that motor difficulties limit or bias the child’s everyday experiences, cascading on later development. Yet, if research with typically developing children has taught us anything, it is to not rely on our assumptions of how their everyday experiences look as they are not easily predictable by adult intuition. For example, it is only when we step into the shoes of typically developing children that we realise that scenes which seem busy and confusing from an adult perspective may in fact look quite orderly to typically developing children due to the way their motor actions constrain their visual experiences. This highlights why it is so important to capture the visual experiences of children with motor difficulties.

To advance our knowledge and understanding, we need to shift away from static lab-based paradigms and standardised tests which dominate the field of neurodevelopmental disorders and step into the shoes of the child with motor difficulties. Here we plan to utilise head-mounted cameras in an accelerated longitudinal design during the first five years of life in a neurodevelopmental disorder associated with profound motor difficulties – Down syndrome. We will focus on three key aims: (1) Investigate whether motor experience predicts everyday visual experiences in children with Down syndrome and in typically developing children; (2) Examine the role of social context in these visual experiences; (3) Leverage machine learning with this rich dataset to create open-source annotation tools to facilitate future research.

We believe that understanding the characteristics and timing of visual experiences of children with motor difficulties will transform our mechanistic understanding of development and enable us to build interventions with long lasting effects. It will also facilitate the development of intervention outcome measures that draw on moment-by-moment everyday data. This project is a critical first step towards these goals. In terms of immediate community impact, our findings, as well as the individual recordings from the head-mounted cameras, will enable parents and practitioners to step into the shoes of children with motor difficulties. This will transform their understanding of how to scaffold the child’s ability to construct robust developmentally appropriate visual datasets, ultimately improving their everyday learning opportunities.