Where Do Children with ASD Look for Information in Ambiguous Social Situations?

Poster Presentation
Thursday, May 10, 2018: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall Grote Zaal (de Doelen ICC Rotterdam)
A. Porthukaran1, M. Hooper2, M. Davies1, J. Abrams1,3 and J. M. Bebko1, (1)York University, Toronto, ON, Canada, (2)York University, Toronto, ON, CANADA, (3)Durham Catholic District School Board, Toronto, ON, Canada
Background: Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) process information differently than typically developing peers (Loveland et al., 2001). Studies in social information processing have found that children with ASD do not attend to social contingencies (Schroeder, 2013). In a study by Klin and colleagues (2002), individuals with ASD looked at videos of social situations using eye-tracking technology to pinpoint gaze patterns. Individuals with ASD tended to fixate more on mouths and other objects rather than the eyes. Children with ASD are especially susceptible to bullying experiences and respond in different ways compared to typically developing children. Schroeder (2013) suggested that the way these children process social information increases their susceptibility to misunderstand bullying experiences as normative.

Objectives: The focus of this study was to identify what aspects of social bullying scenes children with ASD would attend to compared with TD children. Understanding what is salient to children with ASD is important in determining some of the causes of high rates of social difficulties among this population.

Methods: Twenty-three children with ASD (83% male), and 24 in the TD comparison group (79% male) were matched based on age, IQ and PIQ using a brief measure of intelligence (WASI). Participants were presented with two short videos depicting social interactions in which the intent of the perpetrator was ambiguous (e.g., may have been hostile or accidental) and one short video in which the intent was more clearly hostile. These videos were filmed from the first-person perspective. Participant eye movements were recorded using an eye-tracker. Areas of interest (AOI) were defined as the central components of each video (e.g., a child’s face, a game board, child’s arm) and total time spent looking at each AOI was recorded.

Results: Dynamic areas of interest were added to the social scenes to cover those areas most informative in the scene. In the clearly hostile scene, there were no differences compared with TD children in the amount of time during which children with ASD looked at social aspects of the scene (p = 0.78). However, in the two ambiguous scenes, children with ASD spent more time than typically developing controls looking at non-social aspects of the scene; for example, a backpack (TD = 4.8s, ASD = 9.2s; p = 0.006) instead of a potential thief (TD = 4.9s, ASD = 3.9s; p = 0.01).

Conclusions: In scenes where it was most crucial for children with ASD to focus on social information (i.e., those scenes where someone’s intent was ambiguous), they instead focused on non-informative stimuli such as objects. In situations of bullying, such as those presented in these videos, this may lead children with ASD to miss details that help them to clarify the nature of these interactions. Children with ASD more frequently experience bullying than their typically developing peers. Emerging evidence suggests that how they process information in their environments is linked to difficulty in handling potential bullying situations. This research can help inform how children with ASD process complex information in more naturalistic settings.