Using Eye Tracking to Examine Attention to Social Stimuli and Circumscribed Interests in Girls with ASD
Recent research suggests that girls with ASD may differ in important ways from boys with ASD. Two areas of possible distinction include (1) Fewer and/or different restricted and repetitive behaviors (RRBs), particularly with regards to the content of circumscribed interests (CI; Hiller et al., 2015; Frazier et al., 2015); and (2) Greater social motivation (Dean et al., 2014, Sedgewick et al., 2016). Eye tracking studies have examined attention to social scenes/images and images of common CI (Chevalier et al., 2015, Sasson et al., 2008, 2011, 2014), however these studies included predominantly male samples and did not consider the potentially different behavioral phenotype of girls with ASD.
Objectives: Three validated eye tracking paradigms were modified to examine whether social and nonsocial attention differ in boys and girls with ASD.
Methods: ASD girls and boys ages 6-10 and typically-developing girls and boys matched on age and sex are currently being recruited. This abstract details data from 8 girls with ASD on three modified eye-tracking paradigms: 1) a series of visual search arrays that were modified to include male, female and neutral interest items. We present data from male vs. female slides; 2) attention to social images (faces) in the presence of competing object images [either CI or non-CI] measured using a modified paired preference paradigm (Sasson and Touchstone, 2014); 3) a series of social scenes based on the interactive paradigm of Chevalier and colleagues (2015). Scenes were modified to include different levels of sociability (solitary, parallel and dyadic play) and male and female objects. Results for this third paradigm are not reported here, but are anticipated by Spring 2017.
Results: In paradigm one, girls with ASD spent 61.85% of their onscreen fixation time on female images compared to 38.15% on male images (t=-3.89, p=.01). Girls with ASD explored a greater number of unique female images (6.5) than male images (5.3; t=-2.96, p=.04). Although overall attention in girls with ASD was less perseverative and detail-oriented than reported in previous studies of males (Figure 1; Sasson et al., 2008, 2011), trends emerged for attention to be more perseverative (800ms vs. 430ms; t=-2.23, p=.08) and more detail-oriented (more fixations per image; 1.8 vs. 1.37; t=-1.96, p=0.1) on female than male images. In the paired preference paradigm, girls with ASD focused more on social stimuli than objects, even in the presence of CI images, a finding that contrasts with boys with ASD (Figure 2; Sasson & Touchstone, 2014).
Conclusions: Our data suggest that girls with ASD may be more socially motivated and drawn to gender typical images, with social attention comparable to prior typically-developing samples. Although the current sample size is small, data collection is ongoing with an expected sample size of 40 by May 2017. Our data has the potential to reveal different attention patterns in girls with ASD that may serve as protective mechanisms by promoting higher social motivation and reduced perseveration on nonsocial images.