Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

Two-year-olds with autism orient to non-social contingencies rather than biological motion

This article has been updated


Typically developing human infants preferentially attend to biological motion within the first days of life1. This ability is highly conserved across species2,3 and is believed to be critical for filial attachment and for detection of predators4. The neural underpinnings of biological motion perception are overlapping with brain regions involved in perception of basic social signals such as facial expression and gaze direction5, and preferential attention to biological motion is seen as a precursor to the capacity for attributing intentions to others6. However, in a serendipitous observation7, we recently found that an infant with autism failed to recognize point-light displays of biological motion, but was instead highly sensitive to the presence of a non-social, physical contingency that occurred within the stimuli by chance. This observation raised the possibility that perception of biological motion may be altered in children with autism from a very early age, with cascading consequences for both social development and the lifelong impairments in social interaction that are a hallmark of autism spectrum disorders8. Here we show that two-year-olds with autism fail to orient towards point-light displays of biological motion, and their viewing behaviour when watching these point-light displays can be explained instead as a response to non-social, physical contingencies—physical contingencies that are disregarded by control children. This observation has far-reaching implications for understanding the altered neurodevelopmental trajectory of brain specialization in autism9.

Your institute does not have access to this article

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

Figure 1: Two-year-olds with autism show no preferential attention to biological motion, whereas control children show significant preferences.
Figure 2: When the animation contains a physical contingency, two-year-olds with autism do show significant viewing preferences.
Figure 3: Quantification of audiovisual synchrony.
Figure 4: The level of AVS is highly correlated with preferential viewing in two-year-olds with autism, is uncorrelated with viewing in control children, and can predict ASD viewing patterns in new animations.

Change history

  • 14 May 2009

    The Y axis label on Fig. 3c was changed on 14 May 2009.


  1. Simion, F., Regolin, L. & Bulf, H. A predisposition for biological motion in the newborn baby. Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA 105, 809–813 (2008)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Regolin, L., Tommasi, L. & Vallortigara, G. Visual perception of biological motion in newly hatched chicks as revealed by an imprinting procedure. Anim. Cogn. 3, 53–60 (2000)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Blake, R. Cats perceive biological motion. Psychol. Sci. 4, 54–57 (1993)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Johnson, M. H. Biological motion: a perceptual life detector? Curr. Biol. 16, R376–R377 (2006)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Pelphrey, K. A., Morris, J. P., Michelich, C. R., Allison, T. & McCarthy, G. Functional anatomy of biological motion perception in posterior temporal cortex: an fMRI study of eye, mouth and hand movements. Cereb. Cortex 15, 1866–1876 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Frith, C. D. & Frith, U. Interacting minds: a biological basis. Science 286, 1692–1695 (1999)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Klin, A. & Jones, W. Altered face scanning and impaired recognition of biological motion in a 15-month-old infant with autism. Dev. Sci. 11, 40–46 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R. T. & Volkmar, F. The enactive mind – from actions to cognition: lessons from autism. Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B Biol. Sci. 358, 345–360 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Johnson, M. H. Functional brain development in humans. Nature Rev. Neurosci. 2, 475–483 (2001)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Johansson, G. Visual perception of biological motion and a model for its analysis. Percept. Psychophys. 14, 201–211 (1973)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Fox, R. & McDaniel, C. The perception of biological motion by human infants. Science 218, 486–487 (1982)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Oram, M. W. & Perrett, D. I. Integration of form and motion in the anterior superior temporal polysensory area (STPa) of the macaque monkey. J. Neurophysiol. 76, 109–129 (1996)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Omori, E. & Watanabe, S. Discrimination of Johansson’s stimuli in pigeons. Int. J. Comp. Psychol. 9, 92 (1996)

    Google Scholar 

  14. Vallortigara, G., Regolin, L. & Marconato, F. Visually inexperienced chicks exhibit spontaneous preference for biological motion patterns. PLoS Biol. 3, e208 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Thompson, J. C., Clarke, M., Stewart, T. & Puce, A. Configural processing of biological motion in human superior temporal sulcus. J. Neurosci. 25, 9059–9066 (2005)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Neri, P., Morrone, M. C. & Burr, D. C. Seeing biological motion. Nature 395, 894–896 (1998)

    ADS  CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Jordan, H., Reiss, J. E., Hoffman, J. E. & Landau, B. Intact perception of biological motion in the face of profound spatial deficits: Williams syndrome. Psychol. Sci. 13, 162–167 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Jokisch, D., Troje, N. F., Koch, B., Schwarz, M. & Daum, I. Differential involvement of the cerebellum in biological and coherent motion perception. Eur. J. Neurosci. 21, 3439–3446 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Bidet-Caulet, A., Voisin, J., Bertrand, O. & Folumpt, P. Listening to a walking human activates the temporal biological motion area. Neuroimage 28, 132–139 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Chawarska, K., Klin, A. & Volkmar, F. R. Autism Spectrum Disorders in Infants and Toddlers: Diagnosis, Assessment and Treatment (Guilford Press, 2008)

    Google Scholar 

  21. Volkmar, F. R., Lord, C., Bailey, A., Schultz, R. T. & Klin, A. Autism and pervasive developmental disorders. J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry 45, 135–170 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R., Volkmar, F. & Cohen, D. Visual fixation patterns during viewing of naturalistic social situations as predictors of social competence in individuals with autism. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 59, 809–816 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Jones, W., Carr, K. & Klin, A. Absence of preferential looking to the eyes of approaching adults predicts level of social disability in 2-year-olds with autism spectrum disorder. Arch. Gen. Psychiatry 65, 946–954 (2008)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Schultz, R. T. Developmental deficits in social perception in autism: the role of the amygdala and fusiform face area. Int. J. Dev. Neurosci. 23, 125–141 (2005)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Dalton, K. M. et al. Gaze fixation and the neural circuitry of face processing in autism. Nature Neurosci. 8, 519–526 (2005)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Blake, R., Turner, L. M., Smoski, M. J., Pozdol, S. L. & Stone, W. L. Visual recognition of biological motion is impaired in children with autism. Psychol. Sci. 14, 151–157 (2003)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. Pavlova, M. & Sokolov, A. Orientation specificity in biological motion perception. Percept. Psychophys. 62, 889–899 (2000)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Reid, V. M., Hoehl, S. & Striano, T. The perception of biological motion by infants: an event-related potential study. Neurosci. Lett. 395, 211–214 (2006)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Driver, J. & Spence, C. Multisensory perception: beyond modularity and convergence. Curr. Biol. 10, R731–R735 (2000)

    CAS  Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Chen, P. Y. & Popovich, P. M. Correlation: Parametric and Nonparametric Measures 20–23 (Sage Publications, 2002)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  31. Von Collani, E. & Dräger, K. Binomial Distribution Handbook for Scientists and Engineers 182–187 (Birkhäuser, 2001)

    Book  Google Scholar 

  32. Leigh, R. J. & Zee, D. S. The Neurology of Eye Movements 3rd edn 94 (Oxford Univ. Press, 1999)

    Google Scholar 

  33. Hershey, J. & Movellan, J. R. in Advances in Neural Information Processing Systems 12 (eds Solla, S. A., Leen, T. K. & Muller, K. R.) 813–819 (MIT Press, 2000)

    Google Scholar 

  34. Bredin, H. & Chollet, G. Measuring audio and visual speech synchrony: methods and applications. IET International Conference on Visual Information Engineering 255–260 (2006)

  35. Rabiner, L. R. & Schafer, R. W. Digital Processing of Speech Signals (Prentice-Hall, 1978)

    Google Scholar 

  36. Tchorz, J. & Kollmeier, B. Estimation of the signal-to-noise ratio with amplitude modulation spectrograms. Speech Commun. 38, 1–17 (2002)

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


This work was supported by a grant from the National Institutes of Mental Health (U54-MH66494), by Autism Speaks (piloting of methods), and by the Simons Foundation (current methodological developments). We wish to thank the families of the children included in this study for their time and participation. We would also like to thank F. Shic for conceptual discussions and thoughts on methods. We would like to thank L. Dickholtz, A. Kord, L. Else and M. Campisi for their assistance in creating the biological motion stimuli. We also wish to thank K. Carr, A. Blank, A. Bhatt, S. Shultz and K. Knoch for their help in this research project, and our colleagues K. Chawarska, R. Paul and F. Volkmar for conceptual discussions and for their contributions to the clinical characterization of the samples.

Author Contributions A.K. and W.J. developed the initial idea and design of the study, interpreted data, wrote the final manuscript, and take full responsibility for the integrity of data and the accuracy of data analysis. A.K. supervised participant characterization. W.J. supervised all technical aspects of experimental procedure, data acquisition and analysis. P.G. contributed to initial development of AVS methods and data analysis. D.J.L., with W.J. and G.R., developed the final AVS methods. G.R., with W.J. and A.K., helped develop new animations for the second experiment. W.J. created the figures. A.K. and W.J. performed the final revision of the manuscript for intellectual content.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding authors

Correspondence to Ami Klin or Warren Jones.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

This file contains Supplementary Notes for Supplementary Movies 1-2 and Supplementary Video 3, Supplementary Tables 1-2, Supplementary Data and Supplementary References. (PDF 81 kb)

Supplementary Movie 1

This movie complements Figure 1 in the main text (see file s1 for full Legend). (MOV 7132 kb)

Supplementary Movie 2

This movie complements Figure 2 in the main text (see file s1 for full Legend). (MOV 8950 kb)

Supplementary Video 3

This video complements Figure 3 in the main text (see file s1 for full Legend). (MOV 14620 kb)

PowerPoint slides

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Klin, A., Lin, D., Gorrindo, P. et al. Two-year-olds with autism orient to non-social contingencies rather than biological motion. Nature 459, 257–261 (2009).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Revised:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

Further reading


By submitting a comment you agree to abide by our Terms and Community Guidelines. If you find something abusive or that does not comply with our terms or guidelines please flag it as inappropriate.


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing