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Relationship Between Eye-Movement Patterns and Social Understanding in Children with an Autism Spectrum Disorder When Watching TV Soaps

Friday, 3 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
K. Evers1,2,3, F. Hermens2,4, J. Steyaert1,5,6, I. Noens1,7,8 and J. Wagemans1,2, (1)Leuven Autism Research (LAuRes), University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Leuven, Belgium, (2)Laboratory of Experimental Psychology, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Leuven, Belgium, (3)Child Psychiatry, Department of Neurosciences, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Leuven, Belgium, (4)School of Psychology, University of Aberdeen, Aberdeen, Scotland, (5)Clinical Genetics, Maastricht University Hospital, Maastricht, Netherlands, (6)Child Psychiatry, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Leuven, Belgium, (7)Parenting and Special Education Research Unit, University of Leuven (KU Leuven), Leuven, Belgium, (8)7Psychiatric and Neurodevelopmental Genetics Unit, Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA
1. Background: It is no surprise that the research field on emotion perception in individuals with an Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) is immense, since social impairments form the core features in ASD. Despite mixed findings, most researchers using stimuli with a high ecological validity found evidence for impaired emotion processing in children with ASD. Furthermore, some perceptual symptoms seem to be related to social processing, including atypical eye-contact and difficulties in gaze following behavior. Investigating eye-movement patterns, most research has generally found atypical scanning patterns in ASD. However, not all studies provided evidence for major differences in viewing style, or they only found evidence for more subtle differences between children with and without ASD.

2. Objectives: Our aim was to investigate the relationship between eye-movement patterns and socio-emotional understanding in children with ASD, using ecologically valid stimuli.

3. Methods: Two groups of 6-to-10 year old children without intellectual disabilities (IQ >= 70), group-wise matched for age and intelligence level, participated: an ASD group (N = 16 , 13 boys and 3 girls), with a diagnosis based upon a multidisciplinary assessment according to DSM-IV-TR criteria, and a typically developing (TD) group (N = 26, 22 boys and 4 girls), who scored below T70 on the Social Responsiveness Scale (SRS). Five episodes from a Dutch-spoken soap series for children were shown while eye-movements were recorded using an Eyelink 1000 system. Socio-emotional insight was measured with a questionnaire at the end of every episode, using five subtypes of questions: 1. Emotion recognition, 2. Emotion clarification, 3. Simple theory of mind, 4. Complex theory of mind, and 5. Visual details. 

4. Results: When examining the global scanning parameters, no group differences were found between children with and without ASD in fixation count, fixation duration, or saccade amplitude. In addition, when comparing fixations on four dynamic regions of interest (ROI;  face, body, eyes, and mouth), we did not observe differences in viewing time on these ROIs for the video clips analyzed so far. However, children with ASD tended to perform worse on the social-emotional insight questions, especially on those questions concerning Emotion recognition and Emotion clarification, and tended to perform better on the questions concerning Visual details.

5. Conclusions: We compared viewing patterns of children with and without ASD when watching soap opera episodes. No evidence for differences in global scanning parameters was found. Preliminary results showed no differences in fixation times in face, body, eyes, or mouth. Future analyses could include more subtle scanning parameters, such as mouths of speaking and non-speaking persons, and alternations between socially interacting individuals.

Children with ASD tended to perform worse on the questions concerning social-emotional insight, which were asked at the end of every episode. Future analyses will compare the qualitative components of the answers in both participant groups. Besides, socio-emotional insight scores, as measured with our questions, will be correlated with eye-movement patterns. Moreover, we will investigate the relationship between socio-emotional insight in this experiment, and SRS scores.

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