The Bidirectional Social-Cognitive Mechanisms of the Social-Attention Symptoms of Autism

Peter Mundy, Jenifer Bullen

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Differences in social attention development begin to be apparent in the 6th to 12th month of development in children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) and theoretically reflect important elements of its neurodevelopmental endophenotype. This paper examines alternative conceptual views of these early social attention symptoms and hypotheses about the mechanisms involved in their development. One model emphasizes mechanism involved in the spontaneous allocation of attention to faces, or social orienting. Alternatively, another model emphasizes mechanisms involved in the coordination of attention with other people, or joint attention, and the socially bi-directional nature of its development. This model raises the possibility that atypical responses of children to the attention or the gaze of a social partner directed toward themselves may be as important in the development of social attention symptoms as differences in the development of social orienting. Another model holds that symptoms of social attention may be important to early development, but may not impact older individuals with ASD. The alterative model is that the social attention symptoms in infancy (social orienting and joint attention), and social cognitive symptoms in childhood and adulthood share common neurodevelopmental substrates. Therefore, differences in early social attention and later social cognition constitute a developmentally continuous axis of symptom presentation in ASD. However, symptoms in older individuals may be best measured with in vivo measures of efficiency of social attention and social cognition in social interactions rather than the accuracy of response on analog tests used in measures with younger children. Finally, a third model suggests that the social attention symptoms may not truly be a symptom of ASD. Rather, they may be best conceptualized as stemming from differences domain general attention and motivation mechanisms. The alternative argued for here that infant social attention symptoms meet all the criteria of a unique dimension of the phenotype of ASD and the bi-directional phenomena involved in social attention cannot be fully explained in terms of domain general aspects of attention development.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number752274
JournalFrontiers in Psychiatry
StatePublished - Jan 31 2022


  • diagnosis
  • face processing
  • genetics
  • intervention
  • joint attention
  • social motivation
  • social orienting
  • social-cognitive neuroscience

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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