This presentation highlights the critical role of early diagnosis and intervention in attenuating the symptoms of autism. Data will be presented on early diagnostic indicators obtained through eye-tracking-based behavioral assays that quantify the social disabilities in autism. The results of these assays were used to generate growth charts of normative social engagement and the deviations from the norm were taken as early indicators of risk. These methods yielded high sensitivity and specificity for the screening of infants. The ultimate goal of this effort is to develop objectified and quantified tools for the detection of autism in infancy, tools that might be deployed in primary care and pediatricians’ offices. This work will be contextualized in terms of recent developmental social neuroscience research with toddlers with autism, which implicated developmentally very early emerging, and evolutionarily highly conserved, mechanisms of social adaptation that set the stage for reciprocal social interaction, which in term represent the platform for early social brain development. These mechanisms of socialization are under stringent genetic control, setting the scientific basis for parent-delivered, community-viable, early treatment in which social engagement is “engineered” via daily activities, thus impacting a child’s development during every moment of social interaction.
Effective screening of infants would be unethical without a clinical infrastructure providing access to family support and early intervention for those screened positive. Through a collaboration with Dr. Amy Wetherby, we are now establishing tools and procedures for the full integration of primary care physicians and early intervention providers with the goal of establishing a new system of healthcare delivery for infants & toddlers with autism spectrum disorders. This system deploys “Early Social Interaction” as its modality of parent-delivered treatment.