Eye-Gaze Analysis of Facial Emotion Recognition and Expression in Adolescents with ASD

Andrea Trubanova Wieckowski & Susan W. White

Journal of Clinical Child & Adolescent Psychology Vol. 46 , Iss. 1,2017

Abstract Impaired emotion recognition and expression in individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may contribute to observed social impairment. The aim of this study was to examine the role of visual attention directed toward nonsocial aspects of a scene as a possible mechanism underlying recognition and expressive ability deficiency in ASD. One recognition and two expression tasks were administered. Recognition was assessed in force-choice paradigm, and expression was assessed during scripted and free-choice response (in response to emotional stimuli) tasks in youth with ASD (n = 20) and an age-matched sample of typically developing youth (n = 20). During stimulus presentation prior to response in each task, participants’ eye gaze was tracked. Youth with ASD were less accurate at identifying disgust and sadness in the recognition task. They fixated less to the eye region of stimuli showing surprise. A group difference was found during the free-choice response task, such that those with ASD expressed emotion less clearly but not during the scripted task. Results suggest altered eye gaze to the mouth region but not the eye region as a candidate mechanism for decreased ability to recognize or express emotion. Findings inform our understanding of the association between social attention and emotion recognition and expression deficits.

Mechanisms of Diminished Attention to Eyes in Autism

Jennifer M. Moriuchi, M.A., Ami Klin, Ph.D., Warren Jones, Ph.D.

The American Journal of Psychiatry 174 (2017): 26-35 https://doi.org/10.1176/appi.ajp.2016.15091222


Objective: Two hypotheses, gaze aversion and gaze indifference, are commonly cited to explain a diagnostic hallmark of autism: reduced attention to others’ eyes. The two posit different areas of atypical brain function, different pathogenic models of disability, and different possible treatments. Evidence for and against each hypothesis is mixed but has thus far focused on older children and adults. The authors evaluated both mechanistic hypotheses in two sets of experiments at the time of initial diagnosis.

Method: Eye-tracking data were collected in 86 2-year-olds: 26 with autism, tested at initial diagnosis; 38 matched typically developing children; and 22 matched developmentally delayed children. In two experiments, the authors measured response to direct and implicit cueing to look at the eyes.

Results: When directly cued to look at the eyes, 2-year-olds with autism did not look away faster than did typically developing children; their latency varied neither categorically nor dimensionally by degree of eye cueing. Moreover, direct cueing had a stronger sustained effect on their amount of eye-looking than on that of typically developing children. When presented with implicit social cues for eye-looking, 2-year-olds with autism neither shifted their gaze away nor more subtly averted their gaze to peripheral locations.

Conclusions: The results falsify the gaze aversion hypothesis; instead, at the time of initial diagnosis, diminished eye-looking in autism is consistent with passive insensitivity to the social signals in others’ eyes.

Low-level visual attention and its relation to joint attention in autism spectrum disorder

Jessica L. Bean Jaworski & Inge-Marie Eigsti

Child Neuropsychology, DOI: 10.1080/09297049.2015.1104293

Abstract Visual attention is integral to social interaction and is a critical building block for development in other domains (e.g., language). Furthermore, atypical attention (especially joint attention) is one of the earliest markers of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The current study assesses low-level visual attention and its relation to social attentional processing in youth with ASD and typically developing (TD) youth, aged 7 to 18 years. The findings indicate difficulty overriding incorrect attentional cues in ASD, particularly with non-social (arrow) cues relative to social (face) cues. The findings also show reduced competition in ASD from cues that remain on-screen. Furthermore, social attention, autism severity, and age were all predictors of competing cue processing. The results suggest that individuals with ASD may be biased towards speeded rather than accurate responding, and further, that reduced engagement with visual information may impede responses to visual attentional cues. Once attention is engaged, individuals with ASD appear to interpret directional cues as meaningful. These findings from a controlled, experimental paradigm were mirrored in results from an ecologically valid measure of social attention. Attentional difficulties may be exacerbated during the complex and dynamic experience of actual social interaction. Implications for intervention are discussed.

Gaze contingent joint attention with an avatar in children with and without ASD

G.E. Little, L. Bonnar, S.W. Kelly, K. S. Lohan and G. Rajendran

International Conference on Development and Learning and Epigenetic Robotics (ICDL-EpiRob Cergy-Pontoise, Paris, France, Sept 19-22, 2016

Abstract Problems with joint attention (JA) are core features of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). Here, we investigate how typically developing (TD) children and children with ASD respond to joint attention (RJA) and initiate joint attention (IJA) with a gaze contingent avatar. Thirty-one participants with ASD and 33 TD matched controls followed and directed the avatar’s gaze to a series of referent images. Viewing times and recognition memory for the referent images were measured and compared between RJA and IJA conditions. Analysis of correctly identified target images suggests comparable target recognition between IJA and RJA conditions for both groups, but poorer overall recognition memory in the ASD group. Eye tracking data suggests different viewing strategies between the ASD and TD groups. These findings demonstrate the importance of considering processing time and saliency of referent objects when creating interactive social technology for children with ASD and further highlights the potential of interactive, gaze contingent social characters for enhancing our knowledge of joint attention.

Vestibulo-Ocular Reflex Function in Children With High-Functioning Autism Spectrum Disorders

Tana B. Carson, Bradley J. Wilkes, Kunal Patel, Jill L. Pineda, Ji H. Ko, Karl M. Newell, James W. Bodfish, Michael C. Schubert, Krestin Radonovich, Keith D. White, and Mark H. Lewis

Autism Res 2017, 10: 251–266.

Abstract Sensorimotor processing alterations are a growing focus in the assessment and treatment of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD). The rotational vestibulo-ocular reflex (rVOR), which functions to maintain stable vision during head movements, is a sensorimotor system that may be useful in understanding such alterations and their underlying neurobiology. In this study, we assessed post-rotary nystagmus elicited by continuous whole body rotation among children with high-functioning ASD and typically developing children. Children with ASD exhibited increased rVOR gain, the ratio of eye velocity to head velocity, indicating a possible lack of cerebellar inhibitory input to brainstem vestibular nuclei in this population. The ASD group also showed less regular or periodic horizontal eye movements as indexed by greater variance accounted for by multiple higher frequency bandwidths as well as greater entropy scores compared to typically developing children. The decreased regularity or dysrhythmia in the temporal structure of nystagmus beats in children with ASD may be due to alterations in cerebellum and brainstem circuitry. These findings could potentially serve as a model to better understand the functional effects of differences in these brain structures in ASD.

High Autistic Trait Individuals Do Not Modulate Gaze Behaviour in Response to Social Presence but Look Away More When Actively Engaged in an Interaction

Elisabeth A. H. von dem Hagen and Naomi Bright

Autism Res 2017, 10: 359–368.

Abstract Autism is characterised by difficulties in social functioning, notably in interactions with other people. Yet, most studies addressing social difficulties have used static images or, at best, videos of social stimuli, with no scope for real interaction. Here, we study one crucial aspect of social interactions—gaze behaviour—in an interactive setting. First, typical individuals were shown videos of an experimenter and, by means of a deception procedure, were either led to believe that the experimenter was present via a live video-feed or was pre-recorded. Participants’ eye movements revealed that when passively viewing an experimenter they believed to be “live,” they looked less at that person than when they believed the experimenter video was pre-recorded. Interestingly, this reduction in viewing behaviour in response to the believed “live” presence of the experimenter was absent in individuals high in autistic traits, suggesting a relative insensitivity to social presence alone. When participants were asked to actively engage in a real-time interaction with the experimenter, however, high autistic trait individuals looked significantly less at the experimenter relative to low autistic trait individuals. The results reinforce findings of atypical gaze behaviour in individuals high in autistic traits, but suggest that active engagement in a social interaction may be important in eliciting reduced looking. We propose that difficulties with the spatio-temporal dynamics associated with real social interactions rather than underlying difficulties processing the social stimulus itself may drive these effects. The results underline the importance of developing ecologically valid methods to investigate social cognition.

Reducing age of autism diagnosis: developmental social neuroscience meets public health challenge

Ami Klin, Cheryl Klaiman, Warren Jones

Rev Neurol 2015; 60 (Suppl 1): S3-11.


Abstract Autism spectrum disorder (autism) is a highly prevalent and heterogeneous family of neurodevelopmental disorders of genetic origins with potentially devastating implications for child, family, health and educational systems. Despite advances in paper-and-pencil screening and in standardization of diagnostic procedures, diagnosis of autism in the US still hovers around the ages of four or five years, later still in disadvantaged communities, and several years after the age of two to three years when the condition can be reliably diagnosed by expert clinicians. As early detection and treatment are two of the most important factors optimizing outcome, and given that diagnosis is typically a necessary condition for families to have access to early treatment, reducing age of diagnosis has become one of the greatest priorities of the field. Recent advances in developmental social neuroscience promise the advent of cost-effective and community- viable, performance-based procedures, and suggest a complementary method for promoting universal screening and much greater access to the diagnosis process. Small but critical studies have already reported on experiments that differentiate groups of children at risk for autism from controls, and at least one study so far could predict diagnostic classification and level of disability on the basis of a brief experiment. Although the road to translating such procedures into effective devices for screening and diagnosis is still a long one, and premature claims should be avoided, this effort could be critical in addressing this worldwide public health challenge.