Simulating interaction: Using gaze-contingent eye-tracking to measure the reward value of social signals in toddlers with and without autism.
Several accounts have been proposed to explain difficulties with social interaction in autism spectrum disorder (ASD), amongst which atypical social orienting, decreased social motivation or difficulties with understanding the regularities driving social interaction. This study uses gaze-contingent eye-tracking to tease apart these accounts by measuring reward related behaviours in response to different social videos. Toddlers at high or low familial risk for ASD took part in this study at age 2 and were categorised at age 3 as low risk controls (LR), high-risk with no ASD diagnosis (HR-no ASD), or with a diagnosis of ASD (HR-ASD). When the on-demand social interaction was predictable, all groups, including the HR-ASD group, looked longer and smiled more towards a person greeting them compared to a mechanical Toy (Condition 1) and also smiled more towards a communicative over a non-communicative person (Condition 2). However, all groups, except the HR-ASD group, selectively oriented towards a person addressing the child in different ways over an invariant social interaction (Condition 3). These findings suggest that social interaction is intrinsically rewarding for individuals with ASD, but the extent to which it is sought may be modulated by the specific variability of naturalistic social interaction.