Social attention to activities in children and adults with autism spectrum disorder: effects of context and age.
BACKGROUND: Diminished visual monitoring of faces and activities of others is an early feature of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). It is uncertain whether deficits in activity monitoring, identified using a homogeneous set of stimuli, persist throughout the lifespan in ASD, and thus, whether they could serve as a biological indicator ("biomarker") of ASD. We investigated differences in visual attention during activity monitoring in children and adult participants with autism compared to a control group of participants without autism. METHODS: Eye movements of participants with autism (n = 122; mean age [SD] = 14.5 [8.0] years) and typically developing (TD) controls (n = 40, age = 16.4 [13.3] years) were recorded while they viewed a series of videos depicting two female actors conversing while interacting with their hands over a shared task. Actors either continuously focused their gaze on each other's face (mutual gaze) or on the shared activity area (shared focus). Mean percentage looking time was computed for the activity area, actors' heads, and their bodies. RESULTS: Compared to TD participants, participants with ASD looked longer at the activity area (mean % looking time: 58.5% vs. 53.8%, p < 0.005) but less at the heads (15.2% vs. 23.7%, p < 0.0001). Additionally, within-group differences in looking time were observed between the mutual gaze and shared focus conditions in both participants without ASD (activity: Δ = - 6.4%, p < 0.004; heads: Δ = + 3.5%, p < 0.02) and participants with ASD (bodies: Δ = + 1.6%, p < 0.002). LIMITATIONS: The TD participants were not as well characterized as the participants with ASD. Inclusion criteria regarding the cognitive ability [intelligence quotient (IQ) > 60] limited the ability to include individuals with substantial intellectual disability. CONCLUSIONS: Differences in attention to faces could constitute a feature discriminative between individuals with and without ASD across the lifespan, whereas between-group differences in looking at activities may shift with development. These findings may have applications in the search for underlying biological indicators specific to ASD. Trial registration ClinicalTrials.gov identifier NCT02668991.
Kaliukhovich, DA; Manyakov, NV; Bangerter, A; Ness, S; Skalkin, A; Goodwin, MS; Dawson, G; Hendren, RL; Leventhal, B; Hudac, CM; Bradshaw, J; Shic, F; Pandina, G
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