Visual Attention to Cute Stimuli in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): An Eye-Tracking Study
Objectives: Our study aimed at investigating the sensitivity towards the baby schema in children with ASD and TD children. We explored the eye gaze responses to stimuli with strong (infants, animals) and less strong (adults) cute features in individuals with ASD compared to TD individuals. We also expected that sensitivity towards the baby schema would be linked to social impairments.
Methods: Fifteen children with ASD (Mage=5.47, SDage = 1.96, 14 males) and 12 TD children (Mage=5.42, SDage = 1.43, 7 males) participated in the study. Using eye-tracking technology (Tobii TX300), we compared the eye gaze patterns (time spent and number of fixations on areas of interest) during a visual exploration task in two conditions: frames that portrayed (1) infants, animals, and neutral objects, or (2) adults, animals, and neutral objects. Stimuli depicting animals and infants obtained similar cuteness ratings and were rated cuter than stimuli depicting adults during stimuli validation stage. Additionally, we assessed social impairment severity using Social Responsiveness Scale-2 (SRS-2).
Results: Repeated-measures ANOVAs revealed that participants with ASD show fewer fixations on animals compared to TD participants in both conditions. In addition, they showed a different eye gaze pattern in exploring frame (2): children with ASD spend less time on animals, but more time on adults compared to TD participants. Moreover, we computed a Cuteness Sensitivity Index (CSI) as a measure of sensitivity to focusing on infants versus adults, for which a low value indicates more time spent on infants and a high value indicates more time spent on adults. A positive correlation between the CSI and severity of social impairments was only found in the TD group.
Conclusions: These preliminary results suggest a decreased sensitivity towards the cute features in participants with ASD compared to TD. Specifically, children with ASD compared to TD participants, seem to be less attracted to cute stimuli representing animals and more attracted to less cute stimuli representing adults during a visual exploration task. Moreover, our results showed that TD participants who spend more time on infants show less social impairments. This may suggest that sensitivity to cuteness has the potential to facilitate social interactions and predict better social outcomes. Future studies should test the relevancy of these findings in longitudinal studies to examine the predictive value of the sensitivity towards cuteness for socio-emotional development in individuals with ASD.