Influences of Others’ Speech on Gaze Behavior during Activity Monitoring in Children with and without ASD

Friday, May 12, 2017: 5:00 PM-6:30 PM
Golden Gate Ballroom (Marriott Marquis Hotel)
Y. A. Ahn1, C. Foster2, E. Barney3, Q. Wang2, C. A. Wall4, B. Li5, L. Booth6, M. C. Lyons7, C. A. Paisley8, S. M. Abdullahi6, M. L. Braconnier6, J. Lei9, M. Kim10, C. C. Kautz11, P. E. Ventola6 and F. Shic12, (1)Seattle Children's Research Institute, Seattle, WA, (2)Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, (3)Child Study Center, Yale University, New Haven, CT, (4)Department of Psychology, University of South Carolina, Columbia, SC, (5)Yale Child Study Center, Yale University School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, (6)Yale Child Study Center, New Haven, CT, (7)Yale University, New Haven, CT, (8)University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa, AL, (9)Centre for Applied Autism Research, University of Bath, Bath, United Kingdom, (10)Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, Seattle Children's, Seattle, WA, (11)Yale Child Study Center, Yale School of Medicine, New Haven, CT, (12)Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development, Seattle Children's Research Institute, Seattle, WA
Background:  Monitoring of the activities of others is a crucial component of social learning in young children. Recent work has highlighted that atypical attention patterns in toddlers with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) during activity monitoring may be associated with cognitive deficits and greater autism severity (Shic, Bradshaw, Klin, Scassellati, & Chawarska, 2011; Shic et al., 2014). While toddlers with ASD exhibited looked less towards socially-relevant information and showed insensitivity to others’ gaze information, high-functioning adults with ASD appeared to attend to actresses’ gaze cues during activity monitoring (Foster et al., 2016). Although others’ gaze cues may not be salient to toddlers with ASD, the presence of others’ speech may encourage them to direct their attention towards people in the scene (Ahn et al., 2016). As sensitivity to social information in ASD individuals varies across development, it is important to understand the developmental trajectory of sensitivity to others’ speech during activity monitoring in ASD.

Objectives:  To explore the extent to which the presence or absence of others’ speech influences attention allocations in children with and without ASD during activity monitoring.

Methods:  Thirty-eight children aged 4-8 years (ASD n=16, TD n=22) viewed 12 10s video clips of two actresses interacting over a shared task (e.g., cutting toy vegetables). The video clips varied by the actress pair, type of activity, background, gaze behavior of the actresses (mutual towards each other or towards the activity), and presence of distractors (many distractors or no distractors). Eye-tracking methodology was employed to examine participants’ gaze patterns. Analyses were conducted to examine between-group differences during the presence and absence of speech in the proportion of time participants spent looking at the actresses’ heads (%Head), the area of shared central activity between the two actresses (%Activity), and the background elements including distractors (%Background).

Results: Consistent with previous work with toddlers, school-age children with ASD attended significantly less to the actresses’ heads (p<.05, ηp2=.04) and activity (p<.01, ηp2=.07) and looked significantly more at the background elements (p<.01, ηp2=.07) regardless of the presence of speech. Both ASD and TD children exhibited a larger %Head during mutual gaze between the actresses (p<.01, ηp2=.11) and during the presence of speech (p<.05, ηp2=.03), as well as a larger %Activity during activity gaze between the actresses (p<.01, ηp2=.33). They oriented their attention towards the background during the absence of speech (p<.05, ηp2=.03).

Conclusions: These results support previous findings that children with ASD demonstrate diminished attention towards people and activities. Similar to the toddler work, the current results indicate that both ASD and TD school-age children demonstrate sensitivity to others’ speech. However, the gaze cues of the speakers seem to be more salient to 4-8 year-old ASD children than to the toddlers, which is a similar pattern exhibited by adults with ASD. Thus, the attention allocation during activity monitoring in individual appear to alter around school-age. Further research should investigate the effects of others’ speech on attention patterns in adults with ASD in order to fully understand the development trajectory of attention to social information in ASD population.