Patterns of Visual Fixation during Moments of High Engagement in School-Age Children with and without Autism Spectrum Disorder
Objectives: To investigate: (1) where children with and without ASD look when viewing naturalistic social scenes; and (2) whether looking patterns are modulated by engagement with scene content.
Methods: Eye-tracking data were collected while 92 children with ASD (mean age=10.32(3.2) years; 28 female) and 44 age- and IQ-matched TD children (mean age=10(2.9) years; 15 female) watched age-appropriate movies. Permutation testing was used to identify periods of statistically significant blink inhibition (indicating moments when children were highly engaged) and statistically significant increased blinking (indicating moments when children were less engaged) for each group separately (Figure 1). Percentage of visual fixation time on eyes, mouth, body, and object regions were calculated for each child over: (1) the entire viewing session; (2) periods of high engagement; and (3) periods of less engagement.
Results: Multivariate ANOVAs showed that, over the entire viewing session, TD viewers fixated more on eyes and mouths compared to children with ASD, who instead looked more at objects and bodies (all p’s<0.0001). These group differences were also observed during periods of high engagement (all p’s< 0.05; Figure 2a). Finally, there was a significant interaction between diagnosis and level of engagement, with TD viewers looking more at mouths when highly engaged compared to when they were less engaged (p<0.05; Figure 2c).
Conclusions: Results show that children with ASD and their TD peers perceive social stimuli in markedly different ways. TD viewers attend more to faces, while viewers with ASD attend more to objects. Critically, these differences become even more pronounced during periods when viewers were highly engaged with the stimuli. Ongoing analyses, examining between-group differences in the timing of when children are engaged and with what type of content, will further elucidate the subjective experience of individuals with ASD.