BACKGROUND: Difficulties with executive functioning (EF) are common in individuals with a range of developmental disorders, including autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Interventions that target underlying mechanisms of EF early in development could be broadly beneficial, but require infant markers of such mechanisms in order to be feasible. Prospective studies of infants at high familial risk (HR) for ASD have revealed a surprising tendency for HR toddlers to show longer epochs of attention to faces than low-risk (LR) controls. In typical development, decreases in look durations towards the end of the first year of life are driven by the development of executive attention-a foundational component of EF. Here, we test the hypothesis that prolonged attention to visual stimuli (including faces) in HR toddlers reflects early differences in the development of executive attention.
METHODS: In a longitudinal prospective study, we used eye-tracking to record HR and LR infants' looking behaviour to social and non-social visual stimuli at ages 9 and 15 months. At age 3 years, we assessed children with a battery of clinical research measures and collected parental report of effortful control (EC)-a temperament trait closely associated with EF and similarly contingent on executive attention.
RESULTS: Consistent with previous studies, we found an attenuated reduction in peak look durations to faces between 9 and 15 months for the HR group compared with the LR group, and lower EC amongst the HR-ASD group. In line with our hypothesis, change in peak look duration to faces between 9 and 15 months was negatively associated with EC at age 3.
CONCLUSIONS: We suggest that for HR toddlers, disruption to the early development of executive attention results in an attenuated reduction in looking time to faces. Effects may be more apparent for faces due to early biases to orient towards them; further, attention difficulties may interact with earlier emerging differences in social information processing. Our finding that prolonged attention to faces may be an early indicator of disruption to the executive attention system is of potential value in screening for infants at risk for later EF difficulties and for evaluation of intervention outcomes.