Eye Gaze Research

As early diagnosis and treatment efforts soar, so does the need to identify novel characteristics that may indicate a toddler’s risk for manifesting autism. An interesting feature of the human visual system is the fact that typically developing infants prefer to visually scan social images such as faces from the first days of life. Not only do they prefer faces, but new studies suggest that they even prefer to look at human biological motion over non-human objects.

Eye movements guide learning, and given these biases, the typically developing newborn selectively stimulates the part of his brain relating to social images beginning from birth.   

Eye tracking technology holds promise as an objective methodology for characterizing the early features of autism because it can be implemented with virtually any age or functioning level.

Eye Gaze Patterns in Autism Spectrum Disorder

 

This video shows the looking pattern of a 2-year-old with autism who prefers to look at geometric patterns. The red dot indicates where the toddler is looking.

Eye Gaze Patterns of Typical Toddler Development

 

The second video shows the looking patterns of a 2-year-old typically developing toddler who prefers to look at children moving. The red dot indicates where the toddler is looking.

At the UCSD Autism Center of Excellence, Dr. Karen Pierce and her team are using eye tracking technology to discover if eye tracking patterns can be used as an early warning sign for autism. They believe that an infant’s choice of what to look at from the first days of life can signify if that child is at risk for developing autism.

In one such eye tracking study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2010, infants as young as 14 months who eventually went on to receive a final diagnosis of autism looked at movies of geometric shapes more often than movies of children dancing and doing yoga. The reverse was true for 51 typically developing infants and toddlers who all (with one exception) preferred to look at the “social” images. 

In that study, toddlers were seated on their parent’s lap and allowed to watch a movie containing moving geometric patterns on one side of an eye tracking monitor and children dancing and doing yoga on the other. If a toddler examined geometric shapes more than 70% of the time, the probability of accurately classifying that toddler as having an autism spectrum disorder was 100%. Therefore this study is one clear example how eye tracking technology can be used to discover early markers of autism.