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Open Access Open Badges Research

The regulatory function of social referencing in preschoolers with Down syndrome or Williams syndrome

Angela John Thurman12* and Carolyn B Mervis1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, University of Louisville, Louisville, KY, 40292, USA

2 MIND Institute, Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences, University of California, UC Davis, 2825 50th Street, Room 2101, Sacramento, CA, 95817, USA

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Journal of Neurodevelopmental Disorders 2013, 5:2  doi:10.1186/1866-1955-5-2

Published: 13 February 2013



An important developmental task is to learn to recognize another person as a source of information and to utilize this information as a method of learning about the surrounding world. This socially guided form of learning, referred to as social referencing, is critical for the development of children’s understanding of other people, themselves and their surrounding world. In the present project, the regulatory function of social referencing was examined in two genetic disorders that are characterized by differing patterns of socio-cognitive development: Down syndrome (DS) and Williams syndrome (WS).


Participants were 20 children with DS and 20 children with WS aged 42 to 71 months, matched on chronological age and gender. Each child participated in four studies: one study in which we examined performance in a social referencing paradigm and three studies in which we considered performance on tasks designed to tap each of three component abilities (initiating eye contact, gaze following and emotional responsivity) important for success in social referencing.


The majority of children in both groups demonstrated positive behavioral responses regarding the stimulus in the Social Referencing task when the adult communicated a joyful message but did not regulate their own behavior in accordance with the adult’s expression of fear. Between-group differences were observed in both conditions, with most differences indicating more advanced socio-communicative competence for children with DS than for children with WS even though the overall intellectual abilities and receptive language abilities of the children with WS were significantly higher than were those of the children with DS. The results of follow-up studies indicated that children with DS were more likely to initiate eye contact (unsolicited) and to follow another person’s gaze in triadic situations than were children with WS. Neither group regulated their behavior in response to expressions of fear.


These findings provide new insight into the development of the social cognitive phenotypes associated with DS and WS. These social cognitive differences found during the preschool years likely contribute to the differing phenotypes observed later in life between individuals with DS and individuals with WS.

Down syndrome; Eye contact; Emotional responsivity; Gaze following; Intellectual disability; Joint attention; Social referencing; Williams-Beuren syndrome