Past studies of visual scanning of dynamic social scenes in adults with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) revealed distinct differences from typically-developing (TD) individuals matched on chronological age and cognitive functioning. Results showed that visual fixation strongly correlated with level of social disability in individuals with ASD. However, while adults provide information about endpoints of this lifelong disorder, school-age children may offer an opportunity to examine a range of developmental trajectories still in progress. Additionally, given the broad range of trajectories in ASD, a larger, more heterogeneous sampling allows for more detailed examination of the relationship between visual fixation patterns during viewing of naturalistic social scenes and social disability.
The current study measures visual fixation patterns of school-age children with ASD and investigates the relationship between visual fixation and social disability as moderated by profiles of cognitive functioning.
Eye-tracking data were collected while school-age children with ASD (n=109) and TD peers (n=26) viewed video scenes of children and adults engaged in social interaction within naturalistic visual settings. Across all scenes, percentage of visual fixation time on eyes, mouth, body, and object/background regions was calculated for each child. In a first set of analyses, a subset of children with ASD (n=49) was matched to TD peers (n=26) on chronological age, verbal, nonverbal, and full-scale IQ to compare the fixation patterns of the matched samples. In a second set of analyses, data from the entire sample of children with ASD (n=109) were analyzed to determine the relationship between scanning patterns and social disability in a heterogeneous sample. The sample represented a broad range of level of social disability (ADOS Calibrated Severity Score: mean=7.0(2.5), range=1 to 10) and cognitive functioning (FSIQ: mean=96.6(21.4), range=42 to 149).
Visual fixation patterns of the matched samples of school-age children with ASD and TD children are significantly different: children with ASD looked less at the more socially relevant face region and looked more at the body and object/background regions. Within the full ASD sample, the strength and direction of the relationships between visual fixation and social disability were significantly moderated both by full-scale IQ and by the discrepancy between verbal and non-verbal IQ.
Visual fixation patterns observed in a broad, heterogeneous sample of school-age children with ASD indicate a range of atypical viewing patterns associated with ASD as well as a modifying role for cognitive profiles in the relationship between visual fixation and social disability.
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