Larger pupil dilation to nonsocial sounds in infants with subsequent autism diagnosis

J Child Psychol Psychiatry. 2021 Sep 13. doi: 10.1111/jcpp.13520. Online ahead of print.


BACKGROUND: Studies of infants with an elevated likelihood of autism spectrum disorder can identify basic developmental processes that are associated with subsequently emerging clinical symptoms. Atypical responsiveness to sounds in infancy is such a potential early marker of autism. Here, we used pupillometry to quantify reactivity to social and nonsocial sounds in infants with a subsequent diagnosis. Previous research suggest that pupil dilation reflects attentional alerting, and link it to the locus coeruleus norepinephrine system.

METHODS: We measured pupil dilation responses to child-directed speech and the sound of running water; sounds infants often hear in their everyday life. The final sample consisted of 99 ten-month-old infants (52 girls), of whom 68 had an elevated likelihood of autism and 31 were typically developing low-likelihood infants. At follow-up (36 months of age), 18 children in the elevated-likelihood group were diagnosed with autism.

RESULTS: Compared to infants without diagnosis, the infants who were subsequently diagnosed with autism had larger pupil dilation when listening to nonsocial sounds, while reactivity to speech was strikingly similar between groups. In the total sample, more pupil dilation to the nonsocial sound was associated with higher levels of autistic symptoms. We also found that on a trial-by-trial basis, across all conditions and groups, more pupil dilation was associated with making fewer gaze shifts.

CONCLUSIONS: This study did not find evidence of atypical pupillary reactivity to child-directed speech early in life in autism. Instead, the results suggest that certain nonsocial sounds elicit atypically strong alerting responses in infants with a subsequent autism diagnosis. These findings may have important theoretical and clinical implications.

PMID:34519369 | DOI:10.1111/jcpp.13520

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