ASF welcomes Jerri Sparks Kaiser as our newest Science Writer. Jerri, a parent of four children, one of whom has autism, will blog for ASF from a parent’s perspective about the latest autism research. A former Congressional Press Secretary, Jerri is an experienced science writer and has written specifically about autism for many years. Before her life in PR, she was a trained researcher having earned her B.A. in Psychology at UCLA. She currently lives with her family in New York.
By Jerri Sparks Kaiser
A promising new study about blinking rates in autistic children caught my attention this week. As the mother of an autistic son and three other typically developing children, I can attest to the differences in their social behavior but it had never occurred to me to measure and compare their blinking rates.
The new study, which appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found that when autistic individuals watch a video of a boy and girl playing they decrease their blinking rate when watching the physical movements whereas typically developing individuals did just the opposite – they decreased their blinking rate while watching the emotional content. That is, typically developing children are intrigued by emotional interactions (since decreased blinking rate indicates interest) and autistic individuals show interest in the physical interactions.
This makes perfect sense to me. When my son was an infant I was studying psychology at UCLA and I kept notes of his daily life from conception until he was about 3 ½ years old.
One thing I noted was how when anyone was upset he watched their mouths move instead of their entire face. He rarely looked at their eyes. It was as if he couldn’t hear the conversation so he found the silent movements of their mouths humorous. He would stare intently at people’s mouths and then begin laughing. Later on he would become excited by this and tip forward on his toes, waving his arms excitedly as he watched.
I remember thinking he might be deaf so I had his hearing checked but it was fine. In fact, Jared can hear very well, from distant trains to the fluorescent bulbs in the kitchen. For some reason though he compartmentalizes his sensory input, instead of processing the whole he catches the visual, then the audio. He would watch sand fall in front of his face and ignore my pleas to come out of the sandbox. His visual system has always over rode his auditory, so much so that I began covering his eyes if I wanted him to pay attention to what I was saying.
This study could lead to much earlier diagnosis and treatment of autism. Infants have gaze patterns at birth, an early indicator of bonding. If it could be found that children as young as 6 months of age demonstrate particular blinking rates or patterns then it could indicate which children are good candidates for early intervention services. This could improve overall long-term outcomes and gives the term “early intervention” a much more powerful meaning.
My son did not receive services until he was 3 years old because I couldn’t get a diagnosis before that, even though I knew as his mother that something was not right. There simply weren’t relative tests for any earlier periods of development 14 years ago when my son was born.
I did, however, instinctively model emotional interactions for my son in a heightened way. Because I knew he acted deaf I often overplayed when I was hurt so as to elicit a nurturing response from him. When that didn’t work at first I intensified my reactions to when he was hurt. Eventually it worked and today my son is very empathetic when others are hurt or upset. He needs to “fix” them. While it may not be the same kind of empathy as typically developing people exhibit or even feel, his nurturing instinct has been developed and is intact. The earlier parents know to utilize tools such as this the better the future is for their children.