Face engagement during infancy predicts later face recognition ability in younger siblings of children with autism.
Face recognition difficulties are frequently documented in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). It has been hypothesized that these difficulties result from a reduced interest in faces early in life, leading to decreased cortical specialization and atypical development of the neural circuitry for face processing. However, a recent study by our lab demonstrated that infants at increased familial risk for ASD, irrespective of their diagnostic status at 3 years, exhibit a clear orienting response to faces. The present study was conducted as a follow-up on the same cohort to investigate how measures of early engagement with faces relate to face-processing abilities later in life. We also investigated whether face recognition difficulties are specifically related to an ASD diagnosis, or whether they are present at a higher rate in all those at familial risk. At 3 years we found a reduced ability to recognize unfamiliar faces in the high-risk group that was not specific to those children who received an ASD diagnosis, consistent with face recognition difficulties being an endophenotype of the disorder. Furthermore, we found that longer looking at faces at 7 months was associated with poorer performance on the face recognition task at 3 years in the high-risk group. These findings suggest that longer looking at faces in infants at risk for ASD might reflect early face-processing difficulties and predicts difficulties with recognizing faces later in life.