Tracking the Links to Social Functioning: Asperger Syndrome and Gaze Patterns

Mary Hanley, Gerry Mulhern

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


The application of Eye Tracking (ET) to the study of social functioning in Asperger Syndrome (AS) provides a unique perspective into social attention and cognition in this atypical neurodevelopmental group. Research in this area has shown how ET can capture social attention atypicalities within this group, such as diminished fixations to the eye region when viewing still images and movie clips; increased fixation to the mouth region; reduced face gaze. Issues exist, however, within the literature, where the type (static/dynamic) and the content (ecological validity) of stimuli used appear to affect the nature of the gaze patterns reported. Objectives: Our research aims were: using the same group of adolescents with AS, to compare their viewing patterns to age and IQ matched typically developing (TD) adolescents using stimuli considered to represent a hierarchy of ecological validity, building from static facial images; through a non-verbal movie clip; through verbal footage from real-life conversation; to eye tracking during real-life conversation. Methods: Eleven participants with AS were compared to 11 TD adolescents, matched for age and IQ. In Study 1, participants were shown 2 sets of static facial images (emotion faces, still images taken from the dynamic clips). In Study 2, three dynamic clips were presented (1 non-verbal movie clip, 2 verbal footage from real-life conversation). Study 3 was an exploratory study of eye tracking during a real-life conversation. Eye movements were recorded via a HiSpeeed (240Hz) SMI eye tracker fitted with chin and forehead rests. Various methods of analysis were used, including a paradigm for temporal analysis of the eye movement data. Results: Results from these studies confirmed that the atypical nature of social attention in AS was successfully captured by this paradigm. While results differed across stimulus sets,
collectively they demonstrated how individuals with AS failed to focus on the most socially relevant aspects of the various stimuli presented. There was also evidence that the eye movements of the AS group were atypically affected by the presence of motion and verbal information. Discriminant Function Analysis demonstrated that the ecological validity of stimuli was an important factor in identifying atypicalities associated with AS, with more accurate classifications of AS and TD groups occurring for more naturalistic stimuli (dynamic rather than static). Graphical analysis of temporal sequences of eye movements revealed the atypical manner in which AS participants followed interactions within the dynamic stimuli. Taken together with data on the order of gaze patterns, more subtle atypicalities were detected in the gaze behaviour of AS individuals towards more socially pertinent regions of the dynamic stimuli. Conclusions: These results have potentially important implications for our understanding of deficits in Asperger Syndrome, as they show that, with more naturalistic stimuli, subtle differences in social attention can be detected that
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationProceedings of the Biennial Meeting of the Society for Research in Child Development, Denver, CO
Publication statusPublished - 2009

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