Social Partner Gaze Direction and Conversational Phase; Factors Affecting Social Attention during Face-to-Face Conversations in Autistic Adults?

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
M. Freeth1 and P. Bugembe2, (1)Psychology Department, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom, (2)Psychology department, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, United Kingdom

Social attention in autism is atypical (see Chita-Tegmark, 2016 and Guillon et al. 2014 for recent reviews). However, the vast majority of evidence for this claim comes from studies where the social partner is not physically present. Consequently, to ensure acquisition of a comprehensive overview of social attention in autism, systematic analysis of factors known to influence face-to-face social attention in neurotypicals is necessary.


The current study assessed the influence of social partner gaze direction (direct or averted) and conversational phase (speaking or listening) on social attention in autistic adults and matched neurotypical adults.


Thirteen adults with a diagnosis on the autism spectrum (11 males; 2 female) and 13 neurotypical adults (10 males; 3 females) participated in this study. Participants were matched one-to-one on age (within 5 years), verbal IQ and performance IQ assessed using the Wechsler Abbreviated Scale of Intelligence. All participants scored in the average/above average range for IQ. Participants completed a live, one-to-one informal conversation with the experimenter. Experimenter gaze direction was systematically modified between being “direct” towards the participant’s face, or “averted” away from the participant’s face. The following topics were discussed: opinions on home-town; weekend plans; national traits; hobbies. Participants’ eye movements were recorded using a mobile eye-tracking device during the conversation.


In relation to modification of the experimenter’s gaze direction (direct/averted), findings indicated that when the experimenter looked directly at the participant, autistic adults looked at the experimenter’s face less than did neurotypical adults, though there were striking between individual differences in the autistic group on this measure. However, the difference between the autistic group and neurotypical group in relation to face fixations was significantly reduced when the experimenter’s gaze was averted. In relation to assessing the potential influence of conversational phase, a greater proportion of time was spent fixating the experimenter’s eye region when participants were speaking compared to listening, this was evident both for neurotypical participants and autistic adults.


These findings suggest that opportunities for reciprocal social gaze are missed by autistic adults when the social partner makes direct eye-contact. Secondly, this study found that autistic adults displayed a similar modulation of attention in relation to conversational phase as did neurotypical participants. Overall, this study provides a rich picture of the nature of social attention in face-to-face conversations adopted by autistic adults and demonstrates high individual variation of social attention styles in this population.