Real-life Social Attention in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Mary Hanley, Martin McPhillips, Johanna Robinson, Clare Carty

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingConference contribution


Autism is a neuro-developmental disorder defined by atypical social behaviour, of which atypical social attention behaviours are among the earliest clinical markers (Volkmar et al., 1997). Eye tracking studies using still images and movie clips have provided a method for the precise quantification of atypical social attention in ASD. This is generally characterised by diminished viewing of the most socially pertinent regions (eyes), and increased viewing of less socially informative regions (body, background, objects) (Klin et al., 2002; Riby & Hancock, 2008, 2009). Ecological validity within eye tracking studies has become an increasingly important issue. As of yet, however, little is known about the precise nature of the atypicalities of social attention in ASD in real-life. Objectives: To capture and quantify gaze patterns for children with an ASD within a real life setting, compared to two Typically Developing (TD) comparison groups. Methods: Nine children with an ASD were compared to two age matched TD groups – a verbal (N=9) and a non-verbal (N=9) comparison group. A real-life scenario was created involving an experimenter posing as a magician, and consisted of 3 segments: a conversation segment; a magic trick segment; and a puppet segment. The first segment explored children’s attentional preferences during a real-life conversation; the magic trick segment explored children’s use of the eyes as a communicative cue, and the puppet segment explored attention capture. Finally, part of the puppet section explored children’s use of facial information in response to an unexpected event. Results: The most striking difference between the groups was the diminished viewing of the eyes by the ASD group in comparison to both control groups. This was found particularly during the conversation segment, but also during the magic trick segment, and during the puppet segment. When in conversation, participants with ASD were found to spend a greater proportion time looking off-screen, in comparison to TD participants. There was also a tendency for the ASD group to spend a greater proportion of time looking to the mouth of the experimenter. During the magic trick segment, despite the fact that the eyes were not predictive of a correct location, both TD comparison groups continued to use the eyes as a communicative cue, whereas the ASD group did not. In the puppet segment, all three groups spent a similar amount of time looking between the puppet and regions of the experimenter’s face. However, in response to an unexpected event, the ASD group were significantly slower to fixate back on the experimenter’s face. Conclusions: The results demonstrate the reduced salience of socially pertinent information for children with ASD in real life, and they provide support for the findings from previous eye tracking studies involving scene viewing. However, the results also highlight a pattern looking off-screen for both the TD and ASD groups. This eye movement behaviour is likely to be associated specifically with real-life interaction, as it has functional relevance (Doherty-Sneddon et al., 2002). However, the fact that it is significantly increased in the ASD group has implications for their understanding of real life social interactions.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development
Publication statusPublished - 2011


  • Autism
  • Social Attention
  • eye tracking

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