That discovery is all about key differences in what captures the attention of children with autism compared to other kids.
Those differences are in place by the time kids are 2 years old and may start much younger, note the scientists, who included Ami Klin, PhD, and Warren Jones, PhD, of the Yale Child Study Center.
"We know that the earlier we are able to detect autism and intervene, the more likely we are to optimize the child's outcome," Klin tells WebMD by email. "Our hope is to detect vulnerabilities for autism as early as possible, so as to intervene with the hope to capitalize on the babies' brain malleability."
Thomas Insel, MD, director of the National Institute of Mental Health (which funded the new study), agrees.
"For the first time, this study has pinpointed what grabs the attention of toddlers with ASDs [autism spectrum disorders]," Insel says in a news release. "In addition to the potential uses in screening for early diagnosis, this line of research holds promise for the development of new therapies based on redirecting visual attention in children with these disorders."
New Autism Study
The new study was inspired by a 15-month-old girl with autism who puzzled Klin and Jones.
Klin and Jones showed the girl videos of an adult, shown as a stick figure outlined by points of light on his body, moving around and talking. In some of the videos, the figure was right-side-up; in other videos, the image was upside down.
The little girl wasn't all that interested in either video -- until the figure started clapping his hands while singing the "pat-a-cake" nursery rhyme. That caught her attention.
At first, Klin and Jones weren't sure what was going on. Then, after checking their data, they realized that the girl was more interested in audio-visual synchronicity -- the figure moving in time with the clapping -- than in the figure's other movements.
In new experiments, the researchers studied a larger group of 2-year-olds with autism, as well as typically developing kids and children with developmental disabilities other than autism.
Once again, the autistic children showed a preference for audio-visual synchronicity in the "pat-a-cake" videos, while the other children were more interested in the figure's movements regardless of audio-visual synchronicity.
Klin explains that within a few days after birth, typically developing children prefer watching biological motion -- the movement of living beings, such as their parents -- and that preference is an important survival skill and a building block for relationships.
But Klin's group found that autistic children were more interested in "nonsocial contingencies," which are synchronicities that don't have any social meaning -- like two balls colliding and making a sound, or a stone falling when someone drops it.
New Autism Study
Klin, Jones, and colleagues have a grant to study how early in life those attention differences start and whether those patterns can be altered.
Meanwhile, Klin has a message for families of autistic children.
"I have 20 years serving children with autism and their families, and their well-being is all that matters," Klin tells WebMD.
"There is nothing in our research that in any way conveys a sense that children [with autism] are any less human, any less deserving of our love and respect, or any less of anything at all. It is that the way they seem to learn about this world is rather different than the strategies used by their peers. By better understanding how they do this, the better we will be able to reach them, and like in any personal relationship, the better they will be able to reach us. ... Their different perspective might give us solutions that others, with the typical mind and brain, might never see."
Klin talks more about reaching children with autism on WebMD's News blog.