There has been a major controversy in the understanding of the visual attention of ASD patients to facial features. While research has identified that avoiding direct eye contact is one of the common features of ASDs, autism patients give attention to facial features similar to typically developing (TD) individuals.
Autism is a neural development disease, which is under the Autism-spectrum disorders (ASDs) along with disorders such as Asperger’s syndrome, Rett syndrome, and other developmental disorders. ASDs are characterized by impaired social interactions and difficulty in verbal and non-verbal communications.
Studies found no difference between the face scanning of Autistic individuals and the control group. However, some studies claimed that autism patients focused on specific regions of the face, in contrast to the TD group, who have no fixation to any particular facial areas.
Later research revealed that all these results may be biased either due to employing improper control groups or selecting study groups based on age instead of their mental abilities.
Two recent studies conducted to understand the face scanning capabilities of ASD children have brought some clarity to the existing situation.
A study published in the August 2013 Journal of Vision, reported that there is no general abnormality in the face scanning ability of ASD patients, but there exists a disability in scanning all the facial features.
The study compared the face scanning patterns of 20 autistic children in two control groups of 21 TD children each, stratified by their age and intelligence quotients (IQ). All the children were within the age group of 4-11 years. The study involved showing all the children three faces and asking them to recognize the faces when they were shown to them again randomly.
Researchers recorded the gaze of each child using a specialized eye-tracking device and employed multiple advanced methods to analyze the eye tracking patterns. It was observed that ASD children considered looking at the whole face for a very short time compared to children in both the TD groups.
Autistic children were observed to focus just below the left eye when compared to TD groups who were focused on the pupil region of the eye. This observation was justified by the characteristic avoidance of eye contact, common in ASDs.
Another recently published study in the Oct. 2013 Autism Research journal reported similar data in adults with ASD.
The study compared the face scanning patterns of 19 autistic adults with 22 intellectually disabled (ID), non-ASD adults. A group of 28 TD adults were considered as a control.
The average age of study participants was 20 years. A multi-method approach was used to analyze the eye movement patterns. Saccade path analysis, a novel technique, was used to examine the eyeball movements among the core facial features, which include eyes, nose and the mouth.
It was observed that ASD individuals had looked to the right for a significantly shorter time when compared with the ID and TD groups. Furthermore, in contrast to other groups, the ASD group was more fixated on the central nasal parts of the face. Saccade path analysis revealed that ASD individuals browsed the core facial features less when compared to the TD group, but demonstrated similar results as that of the ID group.
Generally, the ongoing research has confirmed that there is no pervasive face scanning abnormality specific to ASD individuals.
Written by: Janet Grace Ortigas