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 In Autism, Blog

Among the symptoms of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are impaired social interaction and communication deficits. Research has linked these symptoms to difficulties in processing facial expressions. A new study from Caltech examined how people with ASD interpret visual input. The study finds that image processing in ASD goes beyond not attending to facial cues, revealing that people with ASD focus on entirely different aspects of images. The research could eventually lead to new diagnostic methods for ASD.

The researchers observed 39 participants: 20 with high-functioning ASD and 19 without ASD. The participants were matched for age, race, gender, educational level, and IQ. The participants viewed 700 images for three seconds each while the researchers recorded their attention patterns with an eye-tracking device. Similar visual processing studies typically use abstract representations of individual objects. However, the present study used images that depicted real-world elements. The images featured people, trees, furniture, and other scenes from daily life.

The findings validate previous research showing that people with ASD are less drawn to faces than people without ASD. Moreover, the study demonstrated that people with ASD are strongly attracted to the center of images, regardless of the images’ content. The participants with ASD also tended to focus their gaze on features that stood out due to elements like contrast and color.

The findings are perhaps the most applicable for diagnosing autism. “Our study is one initial step in trying to discover what kinds of different autism there actually are. The next step is to see if all people with ASD show the kind of pattern we found,” stated Ralph Adolphs, professor of psychology, neuroscience, and biology, in whose lab the study took place. “Once we have identified those subtypes, we can begin to ask if different kinds of treatment might be best for each kind of subtype.”

This research is published in the journal Neuron.

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