Findings from a two-year study led by Dr Susan Leekam, of the Department of Psychology, University of Durham, could be important for understanding the early language and communication problems found in these children.
Dr Leekam said: "We have known for a long time that children with autism have special difficulties with pointing and showing objects to other people. Until recently, however, many researchers believed that this problem was due to the child's lack of awareness that people's thoughts and reactions were directed towards objects and events in the world around them.
"Our new research suggests a different interpretation - that the failure to point and show things to others may emerge from much simpler beginnings of face-to-face interaction. These findings indicate that the problems may start even earlier in development than previously recognised."
The study involved examining in close detail the face-to-face contacts of 20 pre-school children with autism and 20 developmentally delayed comparison children as they played games with an adult. The two groups were matched for mental age.
A computer-based digital video analysis system was used to measure the use of voice and touch by an adult when playing with the child and instances of pointing and showing by the child itself. The technique enabled the researchers to examine in detail whether certain types of attention-seeking, such as touch or gaining the child's eye gaze, were more effective.
As expected from previous studies, researchers found that children with autism had more difficulty with pointing and showing than developmentally delayed children. The researchers also found that the adult was more likely to use both voice and touch as attention-seeking devices for the children with autism than the children without autism.
Their most important finding however was that the children's difficulty in responding to face-to-face interaction was strongly related to the problem with pointing and showing. Children who did no pointing or showing objects to the adult were those most impaired in face-to-face interaction.
Those who did some pointing and showing were less weak at face-to-face activity. This relationship was found regardless of the actions of the adult or whether children had either high or low ability levels.
Dr Leekam said, "What is striking is that the relationship between response to face-to-face interaction and pointing and showing ability was significant only for children diagnosed with autism and not for children with developmental delays.
"This finding has implications for early intervention. Many parents are aware of difficulties long before a diagnosis of autism is made. By gaining greater understanding of these very early problems we hope that ways can be found to target them before other difficulties emerge."
For further information, contact:
Dr Sue Leekam on 0191-334-3260, e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Or Lesley Lilley or Anna Hinds at ESRC, on 01793-413032/413119
Notes for editors:
1. The research report 'Dyadic Orienting and Joint Attention in Children with Autism' was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC). Dr Leekam is Reader in Psychology at the University of Durham, DURHAM DH1 3LE.
2. The ESRC is the UK's largest funding agency for research and postgraduate training relating to social and economic issues. It provides independent, high-quality, relevant research to business, the public sector and Government. The ESRC invests more than £76 million every year in social science and at any time is supporting some 2,000 researchers in academic institutions and research policy institutes. It also funds postgraduate training within the social sciences to nurture the researchers of tomorrow. More at http://www.esrc.ac.uk