Does decreased visual attention to faces underlie difficulties interpreting eye gaze cues in autism?

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Abstract

Background: Shifts in eye gaze communicate social information that allows people to respond to another's behavior, interpret motivations driving behavior, and anticipate subsequent behavior. Understanding the social communicative nature of gaze shifts requires the ability to link eye movements and mental state information about objects in the world. Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is characterized by atypical sensitivity to eye gaze cues, which impacts social communication and relationships. We evaluated whether reduced visual attention to faces explains this difficulty in ASD. Methods: We employed eye-tracking technology to measure visual attention to faces and gazed-at objects in a 4-alternative forced choice paradigm in adolescents with ASD and typically developing (TD) adolescents. Participants determined the target object that an actor was looking at in ecologically rich scenes. We controlled for group differences in task engagement and data quality. Results: In the Gaze Following task, adolescents with ASD were relatively impaired (Cohen's d = 0.63) in the ability to identify the target object. In contrast to predictions, both groups exhibited comparable fixation durations to faces and target objects. Among both groups, individuals who looked longer at the target objects, but not faces, performed better in the task. Finally, among the ASD group, parent SSIS-Social Skills ratings were positively associated with performance on the Gaze Following task. In the Gaze Perception task, there was a similar pattern of results, which provides internal replication of the findings that visual attention to faces is not related to difficulty interpreting eye gaze cues. Together, these findings indicate that adolescents with ASD are capable of following gaze, but have difficulty linking gaze shifts with mental state information. Limitations: Additional work is necessary to determine whether these findings generalize to individuals across the full autism spectrum. New paradigms that manipulate component processes of eye gaze processing need to be tested to confirm these interpretations. Conclusions: Reduced visual attention to faces does not appear to contribute to atypical processing of eye gaze cues among adolescents with ASD. Instead, the difficulty for individuals with ASD is related to understanding the social communicative aspects of eye gaze information, which may not be extracted from visual cues alone.

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Griffin, J. W., & Scherf, K. S. (2020). Does decreased visual attention to faces underlie difficulties interpreting eye gaze cues in autism? Molecular Autism, 11(1). https://doi.org/10.1186/s13229-020-00361-2

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