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Children with Autism are Insensitive to Biological Motion

Updated on April 5, 2009

Inside the Autistic Brain

We live our lives surrounded by motion. Some moving things - like a rattlesnake - are important and warrant close attention, while others - like the rustling of leaves in the wind - are trivial and can be safely ignored. In order to help us determine what to pay attention to, animal brains are adapted to be very good at spotting biological motion - that is to say, motion caused by moving animals that might want to eat us, or that we might want to eat. As early as two days after birth, human babies will tend to pay attention to biological motion while ignoring non-biological motion.

According to a new scientific study published in the journal Nature, however, autistic children lack the response to biological motion that non-autistic children display. Warren Jones, Ami Klin, and several other researchers from around the country conducted an experiment in which they presented young children with two display screens. On one screen, they displayed moving light points that mimicked biological motion. On the other, they displayed moving light points that did not mimic biological motion. Not surprisingly, most children preferred to watch the screen that was displaying biological-like motion, and tended to ignore the screen that wasn't displaying biological motion. Autistic children, on the other hand, showed no preference for the display of biological motion; they tended to view each screen equally.

Because the skills necessary to notice biological motion are usually present in children who are only a few days old, the researchers believe it likely that the inability to distinguish biological motion from other motions has a significant impact on the child's development.

The study's findings can be found in full at http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature07868.html

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