Perceptual and attentional abnormalities in autism – understanding impaired discrimination of the eyes

Autism is a pervasive developmental disorder involving impairments in social interaction, verbal and non-verbal communication, a lack of imaginative play, and repetitive and restricted solitary activities. A critical goal of autism research is the identification of biological, behavioural and cognitive markers that will help researchers determine the links between genes and autism and aid in the development of effective diagnostic tools, as well as improve upon existing intervention and treatment programs. Of note, abnormal perceptual processing is currently a candidate marker of autism. There is mounting evidence to suggest that people with autism show specific perceptual abnormalities, and that these abnormalities may play a causal role in deficits in social processing. For example, research suggests that individuals with autism show abnormal perception of faces, with a reduced ability to discriminate visual changes to the eye area of a face, as compared with normal perception of changes to the nose and mouth. However, it is unclear whether these abnormalities are due to a deficit in perceiving visual information from the eyes, or a lack of attention to this visual information. Elina Birmingham’s research involves the use of eye tracking and a new methodology called the moving window technique, to measure the focus of attention in children with autism while they undertake visual face exploration. Her research will provide insight into several key questions regarding perceptual and attentional abnormalities as indicators of autism in children. The results of her study will contribute to the goal of identifying markers of autism, and as such may have important implications for treatment and intervention methods.