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Inhibition of Eye Blinking Reveals Subjective Perceptions of Stimulus Salience in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder

Friday, 3 May 2013: 14:00-18:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
S. Shultz1,2, A. Klin2 and W. Jones3, (1)Yale University, New Haven, CT, (2)Marcus Autism Center, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta & Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta, GA, (3)Department of Pediatrics, Marcus Autism Center, Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, Emory University, Atlanta, GA

Altered engagement with the social world is posited to be both cause and consequence of the social and communicative deficits characteristic of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). By attending to less socially relevant aspects of a scene, individuals with ASD may be missing socially adaptive information, setting them on an altered path for learning.  This cycle is then likely to build iteratively over the course of a child’s development.  While eye-tracking quantifies where individuals look when viewing social scenes, these measures fail to capture how engaged a viewer is with what he is attending to. Even knowing what a child with ASD looks at, we are left to wonder what aspects of that scene are perceived as being particularly important or most relevant to process? The answer to this question will shed light on cues that capture the attention of individuals with ASD, and may identify (1) factors that adversely impact the efforts of individuals with ASD to make sense of complex social environments and (2) compensatory learning strategies that have adaptive value for individuals with ASD.


Our aims are to investigate: (1) what types of stimuli are perceived as being highly engaging by children with ASD; and (2) how different patterns of visual engagement are related to an individual’s social and cognitive functioning.


People spontaneously inhibit blinks when processing salient stimuli in order to minimize the loss of visual information that occurs when blinking. Exactly when inhibition occurs marks the viewers’ subjective assessment of how engaging a stimulus is (Shultz, Klin, & Jones, 2012). Given this, we used blink inhibition to measure between-group differences in engagement and then examined the properties of stimuli that were perceived as highly engaging by children with ASD. Engagement was quantified in children with ASD (n = 49) and typically-developing children (n = 26) as they viewed movie scenes of social interaction.


As predicted, children with ASD and their typically-developing peers differed significantly in their timing of blink inhibition relative to scene content.  Preliminary analyses offer quantitative evidence that children with ASD are engaged by rapid changes in visual content, such as those that follow movie scene cuts.  Children with ASD show increased engagement after scene cuts, regardless of the social adaptive value of the new information presented. Ongoing analyses are aimed at examining in greater detail the perceptual properties of stimuli that elicit increased engagement in children with ASD, and then relating varying profiles of engagement to clinical measures of social disability and cognitive functioning.


The present study furthers our understanding of altered social engagement in ASD by examining not only where a child is looking but how engaged a child is with what he is looking at. The current results point to one factor that may disrupt processing of complex social scenes in children with ASD: changes in visual information elicit high levels of automatic engagement, making it more challenging to seek out other environmental cues that may contextualize the novel information.

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