Studying gaze abnormalities in autism: Which type of stimulus to use?


Background: Eye-tracking has been used to investigate social perception in autism spectrum disorder (ASD) with variable results. This heterogeneity may be due to the types of stimuli used. In this study, we investigated whether the use of moving vs static stimuli or human actors vs cartoons characters would be more sensitive in detecting gaze abnormalities and discriminating children with ASD from typically developing children. Methods: We studied 18 children with ASD (mean age = 12.9 ± 2.9) and 21 typically developing controls (mean age = 11.3 ± 2.5). Gazes were tracked using Tobii-T120 eye-tracker. Four different types of stimuli were presented: movie with human actors, cartoon movie, picture with human actors and cartoon picture. To identify the type of stimuli that best discriminate the ASD group from the control group, a two-way ANOVA was performed using ecological dimension [human-actors/cartoon] and presentation form [movie/picture] as factors. Results: Children with ASD presented significantly less fixations to eyes and faces in the movie with human actors and in the picture with human actors. Children with ASD also presented significantly more fixations to non-social backgrounds in the movie with human actors and in the cartoon movie. A significant ecological effect was observed for the reduction in fixations to the eyes [human-actors > cartoon]. A significant presentation form effect was observed for the increased fixations to the non-social background [movie > picture]. Conclusions: The direct comparison of gaze behavior across four different types of stimuli demonstrates that gaze abnormalities in ASD depend on the type of stimuli that is used. Our results suggest that general gaze abnormalities in children with ASD are better detected when using dynamic stimuli, and finer details of these abnormalities, especially looking less to the eyes, are better detected in a more ecologically relevant situation presenting human characters.

Share and Cite:

Saitovitch, A. , Bargiacchi, A. , Chabane, N. , Phillipe, A. , Brunelle, F. , Boddaert, N. , Samson, Y. and Zilbovicius, M. (2013) Studying gaze abnormalities in autism: Which type of stimulus to use?. Open Journal of Psychiatry, 3, 32-38. doi: 10.4236/ojpsych.2013.32A006.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflicts of interest.


[1] Volkmar, F.R., Lord, C., Bailey, A., Schultz, R.T. and Klin, A. (2004) Autism and pervasive developmental disorders. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 45, 135-170. doi:10.1046/j.0021-9630.2003. 00317.x
[2] APA (1994) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. 4th Edition, Washington DC.
[3] Leekam, S.R., Hunnisett, E. and Moore, C. (1998) Targets and cues: Gaze-following in children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 39, 951-962. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00398
[4] Neumann, D., Spezio, M.L., Piven, J. and Adolphs, R. (2006) Looking you in the mouth: Abnormal gaze in autism resulting from impaired top-down modulation of visual attention. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1, 194-202. doi:10.1093/scan/nsl030
[5] Spezio, M.L., Huang, P.Y., Castelli, F. and Adolphs, R. (2007) Amygdala damage impairs eye contact during conversations with real people. Journal of Neuroscience, 27, 3994-3997. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI .3789-06.2007
[6] Levy, D.L., Sereno, A.B., Gooding, D.C. and O’Driscoll, G.A. (2010) Eye tracking dysfunction in schizophrenia: Characterization and pathophysiology. Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences, 4, 311-347. doi:10.1007/7854_2010_60
[7] Boraston, Z. and Blakemore, S.J. (2007) The application of eye-tracking technology in the study of autism. Journal of Physiology, 581, 893-898. doi:10.1113/jphysiol.2007.133587
[8] Gredeback, G., Johnson, S. and von Hofsten, C. (2010) Eye tracking in infancy research. Developmental Neuropsychology, 35, 1-19. doi:10.1080/87565640903325758
[9] Riby, D.M. and Hancock, P.J. (2008) Viewing it differently: social scene perception in Williams syndrome and autism. Neuropsychologia, 46, 2855-2860. doi:10.1016/j.neuropsychologia. 2008.05.003
[10] Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R., Volkmar, F. and Cohen, D. (2002) Visual fixation patterns during viewing of naturalistic social situations as predictors of social competence in individuals with autism. Archives of General Psychiatry, 59, 809-816. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.59.9.809
[11] Klin, A., Lin, D.J., Gorrindo, P., Ramsay, G. and Jones, W. (2009) Two-year-olds with autism orient to non-social contingencies rather than biological motion. Nature, 459, 257-261. doi:10.1038/nat ure07868
[12] Jones, W., Carr, K. and Klin, A. (2008) Absence of preferential looking to the eyes of approaching adults predicts level of social disability in 2-year-old toddlers with autism spectrum disorder. Archives of General Psychiatry, 65, 946-954. doi:10.1001/archpsyc.65.8.946
[13] Shic, F., Bradshaw, J., Klin, A., Scassellati, B. and Chawarska, K. (2011) Limited activity monitoring in toddlers with autism spectrum disorder. Brain Research, 1380, 246-254. doi:10.1016/j.brai nres.2010.11.074
[14] Speer, L.L., Cook, A.E., McMahon, W.M. and Clark, E. (2007) Face processing in children with autism: Effects of stimulus contents and type. Autism, 11, 265-277. doi:10.1177/1362361307076925
[15] Riby, D. and Hancock, P.J. (2009) Looking at movies and cartoons: Eye-tracking evidence from Williams syndrome and autism. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research, 53, 169-181. doi:10.1111/j.1365-2788.2008.01142.x
[16] Pelphrey, K.A., Sasson, N.J., Reznick, J.S., Paul, G., Goldman, B.D., et al. (2002) Visual scanning of faces in autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 249-261. doi:10.1023/A:101 6374617369
[17] Dalton, K.M., Nacewicz, B.M., Johnstone, T., Schaefer, H.S., Gernsbacher, M.A., et al. (2005) Gaze fixation and the neural circuitry of face processing in autism. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 519-526.
[18] Nakano, T., Tanaka, K., Endo, Y., Yamane, Y., Yamamoto, T., et al. (2010) Atypical gaze patterns in children and adults with autism spectrum disorders dissociated from developmental changes in gaze behaviour. Proceedings of the Royal Society, 277, 2935-2943. doi:10.1098/rspb.2010.0587
[19] van der Geest, J.N., Kemner, C., Camfferman, G., Verbaten, M.N. and van Engeland, H. (2002) Looking at images with human figures: Comparison between autistic and normal children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 69-75. doi:10.1023/A:1014832420206
[20] van der Geest, J.N., Kemner, C., Verbaten, M.N. and van Engeland, H. (2002) Gaze behavior of children with pervasive developmental disorder toward human faces: A fixation time study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43, 669-678. doi:10.1111/1469-7610.00055
[21] Falck-Ytter, T. and von Hofsten, C. (2011) How special is social looking in ASD: A review. Progress in Brain Research, 189, 209-222. doi:10.1016/B978-0-444-53884-0.00026-9
[22] Noris, B., Nadel, J., Barker, M., Hadjikhani, N. and Billard, A. (2012) Investigating gaze of children with ASD in naturalistic settings. PLoS One, 7, e44144. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0044144
[23] APA (1994) Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders. American Psychiatric Association, Washington DC.
[24] Boddaert, N., Zilbovicius, M., Philipe, A., Robel, L., Bourgeois, M., et al. (2009) MRI findings in 77 children with non-syndromic autistic disorder. PLoS One, 4, e4415. doi:10.1371/journal. pone.0004415
[25] Pelphrey, K.A., Morris, J.P. and McCarthy, G. (2004) Grasping the intentions of others: The perceived intentionality of an action influences activity in the superior temporal sulcus during social perception. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 16, 1706-1716. doi:10.1162/0898929042947900
[26] Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R. and Volkmar, F. (2003) The enactive mind, or from actions to cognition: Lessons from autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 358, 345-360. doi:10.1098/rstb.2002.1202
[27] Frith, U., Morton, J. and Leslie, A.M. (1991) The cognitive basis of a biological disorder: Autism. Trends in Neuroscience, 14, 433-438. doi:10.1016/0166-2236(91)90041-R

Copyright © 2022 by authors and Scientific Research Publishing Inc.

Creative Commons License

This work and the related PDF file are licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.