IU study of gaze patterns in autism uses semi-naturalistic approach -- and episode of 'The Office'

Nov. 13, 2013


SAN DIEGO -- An Indiana University study examined the viewing patterns of adults with autism and compared them to people without autism, considered the neurotypical controls for the study. The study found that gaze patterns among those with autism were surprisingly similar to one another and different from the control group.

Using eye-tracking devices that measure the location of each participant’s gaze 300 times per second, the researchers recorded eye movement and gaze patterns of 20 individuals with autism and 34 control participants without autism as they watched a 22-minute episode of the NBC TV show, "The Office."

"One of the most striking features of autism is abnormal attention toward social stimuli," said Dan Kennedy, a social cognitive neuroscientist in the Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences. "We know that people with autism attend to the world differently than neurotypical controls, by not responding to their name, for example, or not looking at others' eyes."

The findings further understanding of the distinct ways individuals with autism attend to the social environment in comparison to those without autism. The study is among the many studies by IU researchers presented this week at the Neuroscience 2013 annual conference of the Society for Neuroscience. Kennedy's presentation today was singled out as a "hot topic" for media attending the event.

The "semi-naturalistic" approach of Kennedy's study attempts to use stimuli that better approximate real-world conditions. Much of the research studying social attention of those with autism has used highly artificial stimuli and artificial contexts that often fail to capture more dynamic and complex qualities of real-world situations. 

In Kennedy's study, the results among those with autism were unexpectedly coherent. "It wasn’t just that people with autism all viewed the video idiosyncratically, but rather, that there were shared features of the video that people with autism attended to," Kennedy said.

When gaze was different between the groups, individuals with autism were more likely than the control group to fixate on brighter pixels, while neurotypical participants were more likely to continue looking at the faces. The mechanisms underlying these group differences are still unclear.

"It’s possible that these low-level visual features like brightness are more interesting to people with autism and so capture their attention," Kennedy said. "Alternatively, it’s possible that the social aspects of the scene fail to capture and maintain their interest, and so the next best thing to look at might be areas of the scene that are bright. We’re currently trying to disentangle these two possibilities."

The findings, however, imply that individuals with autism selectively attend to particular visual phenomena and have a degree of commonality in what captures their attention. Kennedy said additional analyses are underway to further elucidate the mechanisms underlying the similarities in gaze patterns among those with autism and differences between the two groups.

Co-authors of the study, “Adults with autism show atypical, but consistent, patterns of gaze to dynamic social stimuli,” include Neil Gandhi, a student in the Department of Bioengineering at the University of California San Diego, and Ralph Adolphs, Bren Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience and Professor of Biology in the Division of Biology and Biological Engineering at the California Institute of Technology.

The study was funded by grants from the NIH and the Simons Foundation, as well as a Young Investigator Award from the Brain and Behavior Research Foundation.

To speak with Kennedy, contact Liz Rosdeitcher at 812-855-4507 or rosdeitc@indiana.edu. For additional assistance, contact Tracy James at 812-855-0084 or traljame@iu.edu. The Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences is in the College of Arts and Sciences at IU Bloomington.