Social and joint attention during shared book reading in young autistic children: a potential marker for social development

Zahava Ambarchi, Kelsie A. Boulton, Rinku Thapa, Joanne Arciuli, Marilena M. DeMayo, Ian B. Hickie, Emma E. Thomas, Adam J. Guastella

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

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Background: Atypical patterns of social engagement and joint attention behaviors are diagnostic criteria for people with autism spectrum disorder. Experimental tasks using eye-tracking methodologies have, however, shown inconsistent results. The development of tasks with greater ecological validity and relevance for developmentally appropriate social milestones has been identified as important for the field. 

Methods: We developed a novel, dynamic eye-tracking task emulating a shared book reading (SBR) scenario. Four SBR videos of an adult reader engaging with the viewer while reading a children's picture book and including sequenced bids for joint attention were developed. Participants included 90 children (N = 56 autistic children, N = 34 neurotypical children; aged 3–12). Social attention was also measured in a live free play task between participants and an experimenter. 

Results: Compared to neurotypical children, autistic children displayed reduced attention to socially salient stimuli including the reader's face and picture book across SBR videos and during joint attention bids specifically. In contrast, they showed increased attention to nonsalient background stimuli compared to their neurotypical peers. These attention patterns in autistic children were associated with reduced verbal and nonverbal cognitive skills and increased symptoms associated with autism. Interestingly, positive correlations in the frequency of eye gaze between SBR and free play suggested a potential predictive value for social attention in live social interactions. 

Conclusions: Findings highlight the utility of SBR eye-tracking tasks in understanding underlying divergences in social engagement and joint attention between autistic and neurotypical children. This commonly practiced early childhood activity may provide insights into the relationship between social engagement and learning to reveal how such attentional patterns might influence broader developmental and educational outcomes.

Original languageEnglish
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines
Early online date24 Apr 2024
Publication statusE-pub ahead of print - 24 Apr 2024


  • autism
  • child development
  • eye tracking
  • joint attention
  • social attention


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