Effects of Self-Generated Experiences on Social Cognitive Development in Young Children with Autism

Principal Investigator: Rebecca Landa

Sponsored by Autism Speaks -- 7746.

This study will test whether a novel treatment for social impairment in young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) leads to improvement at behavioral and social information processing levels, addressing Autism Speaks' priority of developing and evaluating novel treatments for core autism symptoms. We aim to improve children's social orienting, face processing, understanding others' action intentions, anticipating others' actions in social contexts, and socially synchronous engagement behavior. Specific aims are to examine whether:

  1. The social impairments of ASD can be modified at a behavioral level (gazing at faces, responding in ways that show understanding others’ intentions, spontaneous imitation) in very young children
  2. The treatment also improves social information processing (using eye tracking tasks)
  3. The degree of impairment in basic aspects of social attention influence how much children will benefit from the intervention

Children aged 24-30 months with ASD will be randomly assigned to the Social Enhancement Intervention+Parent Education or Parent Education only condition. The Social Enhancement Intervention emphasizes child initiation and self-generated action, which are linked to cognitive, social, and language development. Three intervention ingredients designed to heighten attention to social stimuli include:

  1. Child-directed input characterized by repetitious, high amplitude actions and facial expressions
  2. Providing children with input and action-based experiences characterized by synchronized sound and visual cues
  3. Hands-on engagement with face components through specially selected toys and face images

Behavioral and eye tracking outcome measures will be given before and after intervention, and five months later. We expect the greatest treatment effects on behavioral measures, with modest gains on eye tracking tasks. Greater treatment response is expected in children with greater pre-intervention attention to social information. Findings will shed light on whether social improvement represents compensation at behavioral levels or at deeper levels of information processing. One study outcome may be the establishment of a treatment that enables children with ASD to more effectively and efficiently process social information, improving social success and quality of life. If study aims are achieved, a preventative intervention would be available to redirect ASD social development to a healthier course.