International Meeting for Autism Research (London, May 15-17, 2008): GAZE FIXATION PATTERNS IN ASD: A PILOT INVESTIGATION


Friday, May 16, 2008
Champagne Terrace/Bordeaux (Novotel London West)
D. Ostfield , Educational & Counseling Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
K. Cornish , Educational & Counseling Psychology, McGill University, Montreal, QC, Canada
L. Tidmarsh , Montreal Children's Hospital, Canada
A. Bertone , McGill University, Canada
Background: Children with autism lack social precursors observed in typical development, including a preferential orientation to faces. Consequently, children with autism are less likely to engage in direct eye contact within dyadic interactions that support the acquisition of joint attention skills and referential communication. Thus, atypical sensitivity to gaze may have developmental consequences for social cognition.

Objectives: To pilot a novel, computerized task to compare gaze preferences of children newly diagnosed with an Autism Spectrum Disorder to typically developing (TD) children.

Methods: Children with autistic disorder (diagnosis based on ADOS/ADI) were matched on chronological and developmental age to TD children (mean CA= 30 months; mean MA= 17 months). At time of diagnosis, children were administered the Mullen Scales of Early Learning and the Gaze Behavior Task. During this task, a central probe engages the child’s attention before each experimental slide. The display then changes to 1 of 4 conditions: eyes closed, gaze directed straight-on, or gaze averted to the left or right. Participants passively view 2 blocks of 16 randomly presented faces. Separate videos of the participant’s face and computer screen were recorded and viewed simultaneously to code children’s fixation patterns. Inter-rater reliability was established.
Results: Preliminary findings indicate significant differences in fixation time and orienting responses across gaze orientation and group. Children with autism were less likely to look at faces than TD children. CA matched children made more orienting responses and fixated longer on faces with direct gaze than developmental controls and the ASD group. 

Conclusions: Data reported demonstrate that the Gaze Behavior Task discriminates typical and atypical populations and detects developmental differences in gaze fixation patterns. Future studies will confirm the current findings among a larger sample and address the longitudinal relationship in autistic populations between gaze sensitivity and joint attention development following a social communication intervention.

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