Understanding developmental and risk-status effects on visual engagement: Evaluation of infant play behavior

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Vaughn, Sidni Alanna
Singleton, Jenny L.
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Visual engagement, defined as “preferential attention to biological motion and preferential attention to others eyes or face” (Klin, Shultz, & Jones, 2015) is said to emerge early in infancy and serve as a foundation for social cognition as well as language development. Deficits in visual measures such as gaze shifting are seen as hallmark signs of Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). This thesis utilized a microanalysis of audio/video data to evaluate developmental and risk group differences in how infants engage socially across two adult-infant play contexts. Age was expected to have no significant impact on basic visual engagement measures (frequency, fixation) as most of these behaviors are thought to be stable by 12 months of age. Risk status effects were predicted such that infants at risk (AR) for ASD were expected to be lower (in frequency to look) and slower (to shift gaze) compared to typical developing (TD) infants. Age and risk status were predicted to impact latency to shift gaze in response to a violation of expectation (unexpected pause in play). Hypotheses were tested on a sample of 162 infants, ages 15-34 months, of which 37 were considered at-risk (125 considered TD) for autism based on parent report screeners. Results revealed that AR infants looked less compared to TD infants and tended to fixate on non-face (ball) locations compared to face. Additional analyses showed that risk group differences remained significant when controlling for age. No significant age or risk group effects were found for post-pause latency to shift. Limitations of the present study, as well as future directions for both theory and clinical practice are discussed.
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