Social Attention and Visual Exploration in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Autism is a severe neurological developmental disorder characterized, in part, by social impairment. A key social impairment present early in the development of children with autism is abnormal gaze following. Children with autism often do not follow the eye-gaze of others towards objects or events in the environment, which hampers their development of language and social skills. It may be that the seemingly abnormal gaze following evident in children with autism results from abnormal basic attentional responses to gaze cues. Clinical reports suggest that when in object-rich environments, these children demonstrate a diminished ability to focus on socially meaningful stimuli. Therefore, further research focusing on the ability to orient to gaze cues within complex visual environments such as classrooms, is critical. Adrienne Rombough has developed a computer task that examines orienting responses to gaze cues within complex visual scenes. In her current research she is using this program to examine the ability of children with autism to detect changes in complex visual scenes with or without the presence of gaze cues. Her study is designed to compare the performance of school-aged children with autism to that of mental age-matched, typically developing children. Her short term objective is to address the question of whether (and to what extent), the attention orienting response to gaze cues is abnormal in autism. This is the first known study to use an alternative, indirect measure of attention (i.e. change detection), to investigate gaze cueing within complex visual scenes. Over the longer term, Ms. Rombough’s findings could potentially improve the present understanding of how children with autism use social cues to explore their visual environments and how this skill set is potentially related to social impairment. The project is part of a larger research program designed to characterize the cognitive underpinnings of social impairments in autism.