It’s a statistic that gets a lot of attention when talking about autism. According to the CDC, the number of children diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) now stands at 1 in 68. There are many advocacy groups such as Autism Speaks and The Autism Society who do a lot to raise awareness of this growing health concern and to fund research, offer support to families affected by autism and to lobby for services in schools and communities. Rather than being one particular disorder, autism is a spectrum and it looks different in each person that has it. The most common problems are functional impairments in a child’s social interaction and communication, as well as the presence of restricted or repetitive behavior problems. Those with autism or who fall on the autism spectrum can have trouble concetrating, be rigid in routines and have difficulty in school especially as it relates to conversations with other and making friends.
An new study by University of Vermont researchers looks at one particular problem that most on the spectrum have: eye contact. Eye contact is difficult for some children with autism and this new study is the first of its kind to shed light on eye tracking and what it means for those with an Autism spectrum disorder.
As it turns out, the emotional level of the conversation has much to do with how a person with autism focuses. The UVM study was published recently in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. What makes this study unique is that it’s the first to used eye tracker technology to see exactly where a person is focusing their eyes during a conversation
Participants in the study included 19 typically developing children and 18 children diagnosed with ASD between the ages of six and 12 years of age. During conversations recorded via Skype, The Mirametrix S2 Eye Tracker system, which is often used in market research to track what a person is looking at when they are viewing something on a screen, used infrared light bouncing off the retinas of the children and recorded X and Y coordinates of where their eyes were. When the conversation was something very ordinary like what people do for work or what the weather was like, most children made appropriate eye contact, though the level was less in the children with an ASD, as is typical.
When the topic of conversation was something more emotionally charged, like what was scary or sad for the children, eye contact among those with autism shifted away from the eyes and to the mouth. The less eye contact and more shift to looking at the mouth or chin there was, the higher the correlation to children with more severe disorders and poorer intellectual ability and executive function.
Tiffany Hutchins, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences said in a press release from UVM, “What you talk about really matters for children with ASD,” says lead author. “You just change a few words by talking about what people do versus how they feel and you can have a profound impact on where eyes go for information.” Hutchins explained that for children on the spectrum, emotional conversations place a higher load on working memory and they get overloaded easily.
The study was the first time that eye tracking technology was used in a study involving autism. The team at UVM hopes that their research will encourage other organizations to continue looking at ways to understand how those with autism see the world. Check out the video below to learn more about the UVM study.
Sources: Science Direct