Objectives: In this study we used eye-tracking technology to examine looking behavior under both congruent and incongruent joint attention conditions in a sample of high functioning children with autism and a typically-developing comparison group.
Methods: Thirty children ranging in age from 10-18 years (M = 14.47, SD = 2.72) participated in the study. Seventeen had a diagnosis of high functioning autism (HFA) and 13 were typically developing (TD). Participants watched a series of 12 joint attention eliciting videos (29 s in duration each) of a male looking towards a dot appearing in one of the four corners of the screen (Williams et al., 2005). They were instructed to “follow the dot” as they watched the videos. During congruent videos, the direction of gaze matched the area in which the dot appeared. For the incongruent videos, the direction of gaze did not match the location of the dot. The order of presentation of videos was randomized across participants. A Tobii x50 eye-tracker was used to obtain participants’ looking behavior. Areas of interest were drawn using the Clearview 2.7.1 software and consisted of a “face” area and a “gazed-at” area. Proportion of total looking (PTL) to either the face or gazed-at area was calculated by dividing the total duration of looking (in ms) to either the face or gazed-at area by the total duration of looking at the videos.
Results: Preliminary results revealed that children in both groups spent a significantly greater PTL to the face rather than the gazed-at area. However, this result was qualified by interactions with (a) diagnostic group, and (b) the congruency of the stimuli. Specifically, the HFA group showed a marginally greater PTL to the face area relative to participants in the comparison group, F (1, 31) = 4.03, p = .054; however, diagnostic group was unrelated to PTL to the gazed area. In addition, both groups, showed a significantly greater PTL to the face relative to the gazed-at area during incongruent videos, F (1, 31) = 51.208, p < .001, whereas during congruent videos looking was more equally distributed between the face and gazed areas.
Conclusions: These results demonstrate that for all individuals, looking to the face increases during incongruent gaze processing suggesting that individuals may be searching for additional social information. This pattern of increased looking to the face, rather than the direction of gaze, was exhibited by HFA participants across all trial types, suggesting a more effortful processing of social information during joint attention.