All ETDs from UAB

Advisory Committee Chair

Fred J Biasini

Advisory Committee Members

Maria I Hopkins

Frank R Amthor

Eugenie Hartmann

Kristina M Visscher

Document Type

Dissertation

Date of Award

2013

Degree Name by School

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD) College of Arts and Sciences

Abstract

Children with autism have been shown to demonstrate deficits in their facial processing skills and are known to make less eye contact than typically developing children. It has also been assumed that children with autism are more anxious during social interactions than typically developing children. It has been hypothesized that these deficits manifest themselves as the use of a localized facial processing style in which children with autism focus primarily on the mouth and miss much of the pertinent social information conveyed by the eyes. More recent research, however, has found contradictory evidence. Specifically, some studies have shown that children with autism look at the eyes as often as their peers when viewing happy faces, and other studies have found that the eye-to-mouth gaze ratio is the same as that of typically developing children, but those with autism tend to focus more on non-social background stimuli. Some studies have found that children with autism are not more anxious during social situations than typical children, and there have been a variety of methodologies employed in all of these studies. This study seeks to utilize eye tracking technology, real-time physiological measurements, and live social interactions to compare eye gaze patterns and physiological reactions between children with autism and typically developing children. The researchers found that children with autism tended to exhibit very similar total percentages of interaction time fixated on the eyes, mouth, and non-face areas when compared to their peers, and they did not exhibit different levels of anxiety during either familiar or unfamiliar interactions. However, children with autism exhibited significantly shorter look durations to the eyes when compared to their peers. These results suggest that children with autism are having difficulty understanding social information because they are constantly switching their attention to and from the eyes, rather than focusing for longer on the eyes and processing the social information they convey. Future studies should replicate these findings with larger samples and various social scenarios.

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