FRATER - From gRasping objects to grasping others in infAnts at high-risk for auTism spEctrum disoRders

High-risk (HR) infants are children with an older sibling diagnosed with ASD and whose risk for ASDs is 18,7%, with an additional 25%-50% risk for developing milder impairments involving language, social skills and sensorimotor development (Ozonoff, Young, Carter, Messinger, Yirmiya, Zwaigenbaum, Bryson, Carver, 
 Constantino, Dobkins, Hutman, Iverson, Landa, Rogers, Sigman & Stone, 2011). Existing studies on HR infants in the United States have shown that delays in fine motor skills and object exploration may lead to cascading effects on later communication (LeBarton & Iverson, 2013). HR infants offer a unique opportunity to analyze specific motor skills in a highly heterogeneous population of children who may or may not develop ASD, allowing to capture similarities and differences with respect to populations with typical development and low-risk (LR) for ASD. However, only few studies have analyzed grasping in HR infants and they have considered presence/absence of grasping rather than grasp types and functional actions (Libertus, Sheperd, Ross & Landa, 2014). This is somehow surprising considering that studies on typical development carried out by the LaCAM Lab highlight that infants’ fine motor skills such as the ability to grasp and use tools in accordance to function, support later non-verbal and verbal communication skills (Capirci, Contaldo, Caselli & Volterra, 2005; Caselli, Rinaldi, Stefanini & Volterra, 2012). Given the importance of verifying how delays in grasping and functional tool use may effect communication skills
in HR infants to support future research on screening and intervention, the FRATER project had two main aims:
1. provide an analysis of grasp types, functional action production and their relation to communicative skills (i.e. in a longitudinal study considering HR infants at 10, 12, 18 and 24 months of age.
2. allow exporting to Italy necessary methods and strategies used in data collection in the United States in studies on HR infants, in order to extend previous research conducted on this topic in our country.
Results of the FRATER Project highlighted later onset of functional grasps and actions in infants subsequently diagnosed with ASD. Late onset of functional grasps and actions may hinder their role in supporting infant-caregiver interactions, leading to cascading effects on later communication skills in ASD. Results of the project as well as detailed information on methods and skills used in the United States in studies on HR infants, have been presented by Dr Sparaci within a seminar held at the LaCAM Lab in
Rome at the end of the grant period and to the broader scientific community at the 2016 International Conference of Infant Studies (ICIS) in New Orleans and at the 2017 International Convention of Psychological Science in Vienna. A paper on
this study has been recently submitted to a peer reviewed journal and is currently under review.

Project Funding: 
Funding Source: 
The U.S. – Italy Fulbright Commission
Project Timeframe: 
07 May 2015 to 07 Nov 2015



Jana M. Iverson, Infant Communication Lab, University of Pittsburgh