Objectives: The aims of the current study are (1) to compare how the timing of visual scanning and the amount of visual fixation each relate to levels of social and cognitive disability and (2) to identify distinct visual scanning strategies associated with less social disability among children with ASD.
Methods: Eye-tracking data were collected while school-age children with ASD and TD peers watched 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 addition, novel computational methods were used to quantify the temporal and spatial coordination of each child’s visual attention relative to both TD and ASD participants.
Results: Initial results show that degree of temporal coordination with the visual scanning pattern of TD children is more strongly correlated with measures of both cognitive and social functioning than the overall amount of eyes or mouth fixation in children with ASD. Within the ASD group, preliminary analyses suggest that comparison of each child’s degree of spatial and temporal synchrony in visual fixations relative to other participants with ASD allows the specification of subgroups with meaningful differences in level of social disability.
Conclusions: The timing rather than amount of visual fixations on socially relevant eyes and mouth regions was most predictive of levels of social disability and cognitive functioning in children with ASD during viewing of naturalistic social scenes. While the distinct visual fixation patterns of children with ASD illustrated different ways of learning about the world, the measures of temporal coordination of visual scanning provided a more sensitive assessment of predisposition to the same social cues as TD children.
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