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Attention Preference of Animals in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders --- an Eye-Tracking Study

Saturday, 4 May 2013: 09:00-13:00
Banquet Hall (Kursaal Centre)
C. Wang1, Y. Yu2, X. Zhou2 and M. M. Hussey3, (1)Center for Behavioural Science, School of Medicine, Nankai University, Tianjin, China, (2)Department of Social Psychology, Nankai University,, Tianjin, China, (3)Beijing Normal University, Beijing, China

Animal-assisted therapy (AAT) began to be used for treatment of individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) in the 1990s. Clinical reports have suggested that this therapy is indeed effective for patients with ASD. However, in general, much of the information available about AAT is qualitative or anecdotal, and studies evaluating the effectiveness of AAT lack of scientific control and rigor. As a result, AAT has not yet had the scientific evidence base to make it a widely used in the treatment for ASD.


The objective of the study is to determine if AAT can find its cognitional support in the treatment for ASD by assessing the differences in attention features between typically developing (TD) children and children with ASD when they are looking at the social interaction scenes which contain both a human and an animal.


Children aged 5 to 10 years (14 with an ASD and 20 TD children) were presented with 24 natural social interaction videos, which are chosen from TV dramas or documentary films as well as made by ourselves. These videos are divided into three types: a human interacting with a human (2 videos), an animal interacting with an animal(12 videos), and a human interacting with an animal(10 videos). Using the preferential looking paradigm, total fixation duration, and the number of saccades within each movie type were examined using eye tracking technology. The percentage of visual fixation time to 3 regions of interest were compared between ASD and TD groups: interaction, no interaction area of human or animal, and background (the area not containing human or animal).


The results showed that: a) compared with TD children, children with ASD have significantly longer fixation on animals; b) when looking at animals, children with ASD spent more time fixating on the heads of animals instead of bodies compared with TD; c) children with ASD spent more time looking at the dog and dolphin than other kind of animals though we do not know why.


By demonstrating eye-tracking behaviors in the context of human-animal social interaction, our study can give cognitive support for the use of AAT in treatment for some individuals with ASD.

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