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-seek
Contact: Anna Hinds
Economic & Social Research Council