Differences aren’t deficiencies

  • by Katherine B. Martin
  • 8 min

Tobii Autism blog post

Eye tracking reveals the strengths of individuals with autism

April is Autism Awareness Month, and we here at Tobii are excited to bring you the latest research within the autism community. We spoke to several leading researchers in this field about their promising and innovative research using eye tracking and in this blog article we will explore how this technology has helped shape their work. Historically, research has focused on examining the development and deficits of autism spectrum disorder (ASD), but recent strides have been made to examine the differential strengths of individuals with ASD.

Eye tracking has long been used as a methodology to study the development of ASD, as it is a tool that measures visual behavior and tells us specifics like where and for how long an individual looks at something. When asked about the advantages of eye tracking research, Joshua Wade, a researcher in mechanical engineering at Vanderbilt University remarked, “Eye tracking provides a very immediate and interpretable measure of the attention of an individual, which is something that no other biomarker… will provide. You get to know in real-time effectively, where a person is allocating their attention, which tells you all about mental processing.” Today, eye tracking is a highly regarded tool within ASD research as it facilitates the accurate tracking of an individual’s gaze. This information provides objective insight into human behavior and interaction, as a proxy for cognitive and neural functioning.

The development of eye tracking as a research tool in the study of ASD

In 2002, the first eye tracking study of individuals with autism was published. It found that those with autism spent less time looking at the nose and eyes than individuals without autism (i).

Visual scanning of faces in autism. Journal of autism and developmental disorders

Since then, a quick google scholar search reveals roughly 18,000 articles have been published on eye tracking and autism. These articles range from cognitive performance and early biomarkers of ASD, to social interaction deficits. Dr. Ann Mastergeorge, a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University, has used eye tracking as “a window into…the visual system” to document the behavioral patterns of children engaging with social stimuli before and after an intervention program. Dr. Mastergeorge says she uses eye tracking to gather “scientific hard data that actually visually shows where children are looking.” She added, “it’s a very profound finding that we have in our intervention and that is one way we can actually display the differences in pre- and post-intervention.”

Eye tracking research reveals strengths of those with ASD

Recently, the autism community has highlighted the importance of neurodiversity, and encourages the acceptance of differences related to ASD, just as one would accept any other human variation. As Mr. Wade remarked, “you can consider neurodevelopmental disorders or other conditions just [as] an element of diversity, because people with autism have certain skills …, such as increased visual and spatial IQ, [and] there might be industries where that’s an advantage.”

Thankfully, research has also taken a welcome turn towards the study of the strengths, not only the deficits, of individuals with ASD. Dr. Zsuzsa Kaldy, an Associate Professor of Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Boston was among the first researchers to document attentional skills in toddlers with ASD using eye tracking. In her journey to uncover how restricted interests develop in children with ASD, Dr. Kaldy reported a surprising finding – toddlers with ASD were faster to find a target during a search task like Where’s Waldo compared to typically-developing toddlers (ii). “They really like this task and do very well and do better than the same age typical developing kids,” she said.

In a second eye tracking study, her team found that two-year-old toddlers with ASD watched videos longer and looked at the videos with more effort and arousal (indicated by changes in pupil diameter) than typically-developing toddlers (iii). In the future, this finding might help inform how best to teach a child with autism. As Dr. Kaldy added, “what seems to be clear is that this overly focused attention is there at a really young age…and it can be used productively. This gives hope for parents and families in the sense that if you can figure out how to make them pay attention to something that you want them to learn, there is a possibility that they can do this.”

Autism research ieye tracking robots

Other research collaborations have begun incorporating the unique skillsets of children with ASD into the development of strength-based interventions.  Dr. Mastergeorge conducted and is in the process of publishing the first study of its kind looking at robots and eye tracking. Children with ASD have the chance to meet the robots, and then “the robots will perform particular kinds of actions and ask the children to demonstrate particular verbal and… motor imitations,” she said. Dr. Mastergeorge excitedly reports that the children with ASD “actually do better” at verbal and imitation tasks with robots than with people, as “they primarily are less anxious with the robots” than when they are asked to follow directions and perform these same tasks by a person. 

 A Pilot Study Assessing Performance and Visual Attention of Teenagers with ASD in a Novel Adaptive Driving Simulator

The emerging strength-based perspective on ASD research has extended beyond infants and children with ASD into adolescents and adults with ASD. Mr. Wade reported that while adolescents with ASD demonstrate atypical gaze patterns to social events and stimuli while driving, they perform better than their non-ASD peers when the driving task involves rule following (iv). “It actually makes perfect sense, when you think about how people with autism tend to interpret things literally and be very rule following” he said. This knowledge formed the foundation of their gaze sensitive intervention that is designed to enhance visual attention and performance during driving tasks in adolescents with ASD (v). 

The latest in ASD research continues to support the idea that differences are not deficiencies, and the Tobii team is excited that our eye tracking solutions are being used in this innovative line of research. We recognize the impact that eye tracking methodology has in research and are thrilled to hear that other researchers share a similar vision for the future. When asked about the potential of eye tracking in future research, all researchers support the importance of incorporating eye tracking at home and out in the wild.

Written by

  • Tobii Pro employee Katherine Martin - Sr. Research Scientist

    Katherine Martin

    Senior Research Scientist, Tobii

    Katherine's research background is in developmental psychology, where she harnessed methodological advancements in objective measurement to better understand the early development of infants and children with autism spectrum disorder. Her most recent publication, "Objective measurement of head movement differences in children with and without autism spectrum disorder," can be found in Molecular Autism.

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