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New insights into the social cues used by those with autism

New research suggests that individuals with autism take note of social cues such as eye contact more closely than previously thought, regardless of whether or not they have an additional language impairment.

Many researchers believe that poor social understanding lies at the heart of autistic disorders. Testing this hypothesis has traditionally proved tricky as the methods used are often far removed from real life situations and make extra demands on the subject, such as requiring language comprehension and prolonged memory use. Eye-tracking technology is enabling researchers to investigate social processing in situations that are much closer to those experienced in real life.

Dr Courtenay Norbury, from Royal Holloway, University of London and the University of Oxford said about the research: 'What is potentially most interesting about our work is that it shows what people with autism can do given the right circumstances, rather than what they cannot do.’

A previous study using this technology had suggested that when viewing scenes of people interacting, autistic people spent more time fixating on the mouths of people in the scene while non-autistic peers spent more time looking at their eyes. Because the eyes convey rich social information, it was suggested that this aberrant viewing pattern may be the source of the social impairment that characterises autism.

The team, led by Dr Norbury, wanted to explore whether this pattern was limited to those people with autism but unaffected by language difficulties, in other words, those for whom looking at the mouth might be an advantage. They also thought that the avoidance of the eye area might be linked to the familiarity of the material the subjects were asked to view. Dr Norbury will be talking about her research at the BA Festival of Science at York on Friday.

Using sophisticated eye-tracking devices, the team were able to record the eye movements of autistic teenage boys while they watched video-clips of young people interacting in familiar situations. Half the boys had additional language impairments. Unlike the previous study, where the subjects had been shown clips of the black and white film ‘Who’s afraid of Virginia Woolfe’, these specially made clips were designed so the action would be within the realm of experience of the boys.

Dr Norbury explains: ‘We created regions of interest on each frame of the video and calculated when and for how long each participant fixated on that region of interest. By doing this we were able to determine in real time what aspects of the scene captured a viewer's interest.’

To the surprise of the team, they found no significant increase in the time autistic individuals with language difficulties spent looking at the mouth region compared to those without this additional language problem. In addition, the amount of time both groups with autism spent looking at eyes did not differ from their non-autistic peers.

‘Our work suggests that individuals with autism, like their typically developing peers, can and do attend to important social cues such as the eyes when viewing familiar social scenes. The individuals with autism who had additional language impairments tended to spend less time looking at faces generally, but when they did look at the face, they spent significantly more time looking at eyes than mouths.’

The study also highlighted the variation in the length of time people, both autistic and non-autistic, spend looking at other people’s eyes, suggesting that eye contact is only one of many factors affecting social success.

With autistic spectrum disorders affecting approximately 1% of the school-aged population, studies such as this are vital in shaping educational policy and methods of therapeutic intervention. All the boys involved in this research were in full-time specialist education programmes that include initiatives focusing on social skills. These preliminary findings may suggest that such programmes may raise awareness among autistic individuals of the importance of looking at eyes and improve the understanding of the social information provided by eyes and faces, although this remains to be empirically tested.

Dr Norbury adds: ‘Identifying situations in which people with autism may succeed is an important first step in developing educational and therapeutic interventions.’

‘We have also shown significant variation in ‘typical’ viewing behaviour, raising very interesting questions about social deficit theories of autism and highlighting the complexity of the disorder.’

Dr Courtenay Norbury will give her talk, ‘Social communication and eye movements in children’ as part of the session entitled ‘What eye movements tell us about the brain and language’ on 14 September at Vanbrugh V/045, University of York, as part of the BA Festival of Science.

The BA Festival of Science will be in York from 9-15 September, bringing over 350 of the UK’s top scientists and engineers to discuss the latest developments in science with the public. In addition to talks and debates at the University of York, there will be a host of events throughout the city.

For further information about the BA Festival of Science, including an online programme, visit

This year’s BA Festival of Science is organised by the BA (British Association for the Advancement of Science) in partnership with the University of York, Science City York and the City of York Council. It is supported by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, BP and Yorkshire Forward.

Lisa Hendry | alfa
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