Face Engagement in Preschoolers As It Relates to Characteristics of the Broader Autism Phenotype

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
J. B. Wagner, 2800 Victory Blvd, 4S-209, College of Staten Island, CUNY, Staten Island, NY

A large body of work has examined visual attention to social images in individuals with ASD to understand how scanning patterns might reflect autism-specific characteristics (for a review, see Guillon et al., 2014). This work has recently been extended to the study of social attention as it relates to autism-related traits found in the general population, or the ‘broader autism phenotype’ (BAP). For example, Vabalas and Freeth (2016) found that neurotypical adults with higher BAP scores showed less active visual exploration during social situations.


Few studies have looked at relations between BAP and social attention in typically-developing children, and the present study aims to assess how individual variability in BAP during early childhood could relate to attention to social and non-social images.


The current sample consisted of 18 preschool-aged children (Mage = 46 months, SD = 9.8 months). Each child was shown eight 12-second trials displaying arrays of five items (face, bird, car, phone, color-matched scrambled face, see Elsabbagh et al., 2013), and looking patterns were recorded with an SMI RED 120Hz eye-tracker. After the eye-tracking task, the child’s primary caregiver completed the Social Responsiveness Scale, Second Edition (SRS-2, Constantino & Gruber, 2012), a measure used to assess autism-related characteristics, with higher scores reflecting increased levels of BAP. The present participants had SRS-2 scores in a range not typically associated with ASD (T scores below 60). Eye-tracking measures focused on two aspects of face attention: 1) face engagement (time spent on the face out of time spent on all five items); and 2) face fixation bias (difference between average fixation duration to the face and average fixation duration to the other four items). SRS-2 T scores were calculated for Total score, Restricted Interests and Repetitive Behaviors (RRB) and the Social Communication and Interaction composite (SCI).


For face engagement, a significant negative association was found with SRS-2 Total scores, r(16) = -.56, p = .016, and SCI scores, r(16) = -.56, p = .016 (Figure 1), but not RRB (p = .25). This suggests that children with more BAP traits of social and communication difficulties show less attention to faces within the array of items. For face fixation bias, a significant negative association was found with SRS-2 Total scores, r(16) = -.52, p = .026, and RRB scores, r(16) = -.58, p = .011 (Figure 2), but not SCI (p = .08). This suggests that children with fewer BAP characteristics, especially in the RRB domain, showed longer average fixations to the face as compared to the other items.


Consistent with past work in adults and older children, the present study found that characteristics of the BAP predicted social attention in preschoolers. Different BAP domains predicted differential aspects of social attention, with increased BAP SCI characteristics relating to a smaller proportion of time on the face, and increased BAP RRB characteristics relating to less fixation-specific face biases. Future work is needed to explore the mechanisms by which these different BAP domains might influence social attention across development.