Eye-Gaze Patterns during Live Social Interactions in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders
Objectives: This study utilized eye-tracking technology, real-time physiological measurements, and live social interactions to compare eye-gaze patterns and physiological reactions between children with autism and typically developing children.
Methods: 13 children ranging from 8- to 14-years-old completed this study. Approximately half of these children had diagnoses of autism spectrum disorder (n=6), while the other half were typically developing (n=7). All participants took part in two separate interaction sessions with their caregiver and an unfamiliar adult. The durations of the interactions ranged from four to seven minutes, with most interactions lasting five minutes. While each of these interactions took place, faceLABTM eye-tracking technology was used to monitor eye-gaze patterns of the participants. Concurrently, LifeShirt® technology measured physiological changes in participants indicative of anxiety (heart rate, respiration rate).
Results: When compared to typically developing peers, children with autism tended to exhibit very similar total percentages of interaction time fixated on the eyes, F(1,10)=2.61, p=0.137, mouth, F(1,10)=2.48, p=0.147, and non-face areas, F(1,10)=0.58, p=0.464. However children with autism exhibited significantly shorter look durations to the eyes when compared to their peers, z=‐1.786, p=.037. Furthermore, children with autism did not exhibit different levels of anxiety during either familiar or unfamiliar interactions, as measured by heart rate while talking, F(1,10)=0.49, p=0.499, and while not talking, F(1,10)=0.70, p=0.423), as well as respiration rate while talking, F(1,10)=0.08, p=0.781, and while not talking, F(1,10)=0.10, p=0.757.
Conclusions: Children with autism tend to look at the eyes, mouth, and non-face regions for similar total amounts of time as typically developing children. However, children with autism exhibit significantly shorter look durations to the eyes than their peers, especially when speaking to a familiar individual. These findings suggest that the difficulty children with autism experience in understanding social information may be due to constantly switching their attention to and from the eyes, rather than focusing and processing the social cues that the eyes convey. Finally, these results suggest that children with autism do not exhibit any greater anxiety than typically developing children during familiar or unfamiliar social interactions.