It is well known that autism spectrum disorder has genetic links. However, due to the complexity of both autism and genetic science, the exact role that genes play has been relatively unclear. Nonetheless, a new study now connects social ability and the way we look at and interpret other people’s faces to genetic origins. By implicating genes in our social development, researchers are getting closer to understanding the relationship between our DNA and autism. 

A common symptom of ASD is the avoidance of eye contact.  In fact, this behavior is so common in autism that it is one of the behaviors that doctors use when screening for the disorder. By looking at how genes affect social behaviors such as this one, researchers have come closer to better understanding autism. 

Specifically, this study provides data on how young children look at faces. This includes which features they tend to focus on and how long they hold their attention to certain facial stimuli. This was done by recording the precise eye movements of subjects as they watched recorded videos of different people. By looking at the neurological circuits that control these eye movements, scientists can narrow down the specific genes that control these brain regions, and subsequently their related behaviors.

It turns out that the eye movements of identical twins were similar by nearly 91%. Meanwhile, other sets of fraternal twins or siblings showed much lower rates of similarity.  This indicates a strong genetic basis in the way that these kids interpret people’s faces, ruling out other environmental factors. 

Furthermore, consequent studies show that children with autism diagnoses show related patterns of visual movements and tend to focus much less on mouth and eye regions–both important features for interpreting and communicating social cues.

But what does this mean for the future? By identifying genes that influence social behavior and development, researchers are getting closer to identifying exactly how genes interact with autism. Of course, more research will need to be done following this study. However, this knowledge takes us one step closer to better understanding this disorder, and everyone who is affected by it. 

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