Perceptions of Self and Other: Gaze Patterns and Social Perception of Children with and without ASD

Thursday, May 12, 2016: 11:30 AM-1:30 PM
Hall A (Baltimore Convention Center)
R. B. Grossman, E. Zane, J. Mertens and A. Nikolaidis, Emerson College, Boston, MA

First impressions are formed quickly and have lasting effects.  Previous research shows that – without knowing the diagnosis of a child in a video clip - typical adults perceive children with ASD as social awkward after as little as one second (Grossman 2014).  Typical adults also assume within a few seconds that children with ASD have fewer friends, are less socially engaged, and get along less well with others (Grossman at al. 2015).  However, no evidence is available yet on how children with and without ASD perceive themselves and each other.  


To understand the experience of a first encounter with an unfamiliar age-peer who may or may not have ASD, we analyzed gaze patterns to faces, as well as responses to questions probing the willingness of participants to engage with potential social partners.  


We showed brief (1.4 to 4.1 seconds) video clips of children (ages 10-17) with and without ASD retelling fragments of stories without revealing diagnoses.  Participants were 9 children with ASD and 32 TD controls matched on age (mean 13:5, range 10:8-17:2), sex, IQ, and language ability.  After conclusion of each video clip, participants were asked to rate (by moving a cursor on a continuous scale) how likely the person in the video would be to engage with others and whether the rater would be willing to engage with the person in the video.  We used an SMI remote eyetracker to capture gaze patterns to the face, eyes, and mouth of children in the videos. 


Behavioral responses and eye gaze patterns were significantly affected by the diagnosis of the child in the video but not by the diagnosis of the raters.

Both participant groups rated children with ASD significantly less likely to get along with others (p < .001), more likely to spend time alone (p = 0.03), and more likely to be socially awkward ((p < .001) than their TD peers.  Similarly, raters indicated they were significantly more likely to start a conversation (p < .001) and sit at lunch (p < .001) with TD children than children with ASD.  There was no main effect for participant group, indicating that both cohorts rated videos of children with ASD more negatively than those of TD children. 

Eye gaze analysis shows that both participant groups gazed significantly longer at TD children than children with ASD across all areas of interest (p = 0.01 for eyes, p < 0.001 for mouth, and p < .001 for face).  There were no significant between-group differences in fixation durations to face, eyes, and mouth of the children in the videos.  


Children with and without ASD prefer to interact with and gaze at TD peers rather than peers with ASD. These data suggest that first impressions of children with ASD evoke a reduced willingness in their peers to visually and socially engage with them, even if those peers also have an ASD diagnosis.  This may significantly contribute to the difficulties in social integration experienced by individuals with ASD.