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How an Enhanced Program On Attention to Emotion Affect Viewing Preferences to Social Information in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD): An Eye-Tracking Study

Thursday, 2 May 2013: 12:00
Meeting Room 3 (Kursaal Centre)
R. Siracusano1, L. Billeci2, G. Crifaci3, M. Boncoddo1, M. Ciuffo4, E. Germanò4, G. Tortorella1, G. Pioggia5, R. A. Fabio4 and A. Gagliano6, (1)Universita' di Messina, Messina, Italy, (2)CNR, Pisa, Italy, (3)National Research Council of Italy (CNR), Institute of Clinical Physiology (IFC), Pisa, Italy, (4)Università di Messina, Messina, Italy, (5)Institute of Clinical Physiology, National Research Council (CNR), Pisa, Italy, (6)Department of Paediatrics, University of Messina, Messina, Italy
Background:  Using pictures showing people (and specifically faces) within social scenes, research has concluded that individuals with autism exhibit a lack of interest in socially relevant information. They fail to orient towards socially relevant cues such as faces in a way that dissociates them from individuals without autism (Sasson et al., 2007; Klin et al; 2002b). Studies suggest that eye-tracking techniques have the potential to offer insight into the downstream difficulties in everyday social interaction which such individuals experience (Boraston Z., et al, 2007).

Objectives: In this study eye-tracking technology was applied to assess the gaze scan paths in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) and in typically developing peers (No-ASD) on emotional faces. We examined whether the gaze direction in children with ASD is modified by a training to help children to enhance their understanding of the causes of emotions and of emotional expressions.

Methods:  A sample of 21 ASD children and 17 typical development children was recruited. A visual task, consisting of 6 social scene images (from the 1990 film of Chris Columbus “Home alone”), was shown to each participant and gaze behaviour was measured by means of eye-tracking. Different region of interest (ROSs) were defined: principal actor’s face, noise, mouth and eyes, other actors’ faces and objects. For each ROI the fixation count, the duration of the first fixation and the fixation time were measured. The ASD patients were divided in 2 groups: a group was submitted to an emotion recognition program (ASD-a) and the other group did not perform any training (ASD-b). After 5 weeks of training or of no-training, the same visual task and eye-tracking protocol was repeated on all ASD subjects. 

Results: ASD and No-ASD differed for gaze durations to principal actor's faces. Individuals with autism spent less time than is typical viewing the faces and the eye, and more time the mouth and nose regions. The patients who completed the training, showed a tendency to scan the principal actor’s face more that the ASD that did not carry out any training. Particularly, the face fixation time (p=0.05), the first fixation duration (p=0.03) and the fixation time of nose (p=0,03) were significantly higher in ASD-a group that ASD-b, while the fixation count of the mouth was significantly lower in ASD-a group than in ASD-b (p=0.03). 

Conclusions:  This research, corroborating previous studies, suggests that patient with autism show atypical scan paths on emotional faces. An enhanced program on attention to emotion seems to change the viewing preferences when socially relevant information are presented to the children. An increased attention to social indicators appears to go through a qualitative and quantitative change of the look and vice versa. A better understanding of this relationship could provide useful data to increase the undestanding of the mechanisms that underlie these disorders.

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