What is autism?

The word “autism” actually describes a wide range of developmental conditions and behaviors, which is why, since 2013, it has come to be known as autism spectrum disorder, or ASD. This category includes autistic disorder, Asperger syndrome, pervasive developmental disorder not otherwise specified (PDD-NOS), and child disintegrative disorder (or CDD, also known as Heller’s syndrome). It is appropriate to describe any one of these conditions as “an autism spectrum disorder”; a person with an ASD may be described as being “on the spectrum.”

Individuals with an ASD demonstrate difficulties managing social interaction and interpreting verbal and nonverbal communication; they may have a propensity for repetitive behaviors and/or for fixating on a limited set of activities. A person with minor, manageable symptoms is known as “high-functioning.” A person with severe ASD symptoms may have few to no language skills, engage in self-harm or aggressive behavior, and/or suffer from epilepsy, memory impairment, or other cognitive difficulties; this is called “low-functioning” ASD.


What is joint attention? What does it have to do with autism?

Joint attention is the ability to take notice of another individual’s focused attention and use it to guide one’s own attention. Joint attention develops in normal babies between the ages of 9 and 15 months.

Children with autism never develop joint attention properly; in fact, a dysfunction in joint attention is considered a fundamental component of autism, and behavioral therapists often focus on building back this crucial social ability.


Infographic: developing a screening test for ASD. Click to enlarge.

What is the purpose of this study?

Dr. Joseph Piven’s research on mapping the development of joint attention circuitry seeks to discover connections in joint attention and general visual orienting, a predecessor of joint attention that can be detected in infants prior to 9 months of age.

Dr. Piven developed a scale of measurement for a white matter fiber bundle that connects the amygdala to the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, an area of the brain known for inhibiting emotional response and controlling decision-making. Developments in this region were tracked in babies at 6 and 9 months of age and measured using a fractional scale. The results were exactly what Dr. Piven’s team had hoped for: measurements taken at 6 months predicted differences in responses to joint attention at 9 months.


What does this mean for autism intervention in babies?

These findings suggest that the development of core social referencing skills in infancy is largely supported by preceding brain developments, and that babies who were at high risk for autism at 6 months old also had problems with general visual orienting. The discovery of links between general visual orienting and joint attention, as well as the specific part of the brain that controls these development, could lead to very early detection of autism in infants. And since the 6-month-old brain is still highly plastic and malleable, such early detection could lead to intervention.


Meet the Researcher

Joseph Piven, M.D., Director of the Carolina Institute for Developmental Disabilities, is a child/adolescent psychiatrist specializing in the clinical care of individuals with autism and other neurodevelopmental disorders. His research has emphasized interdisciplinary collaborations in imaging, behavioral-family, and molecular genetics studies aimed at elucidating the pathogenesis of autistic syndromes.

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