Eye-Gaze Patterns during Live Social Interactions in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Thursday, May 15, 2014
Atrium Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Atlanta)
M. W. Gower, S. A. Koch, H. D. Johnson, M. I. Hopkins, F. R. Amthor and F. J. Biasini, Psychology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, AL
Background: Children with autism have been shown to demonstrate deficits in their face processing skills and to make less eye contact than typically developing peers. It has also been assumed that children with autism are more anxious during social interactions than typically developing children. It has been suggested that these deficits manifest themselves through a localized facial processing style in which children with autism focus on the lower face and miss much of the pertinent social information conveyed by the eyes. More recent research has found contradictory evidence. Studies have shown that children with autism look at the eyes as often as their peers when viewing happy faces; that the eye-to-mouth gaze ratio is the same as that of typically developing children, but those with autism tend to focus more on non-social background stimuli; and that children with autism are not more anxious during social situations than typical children. 

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.