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The use of eye-tracking as an outcome measure for an innovative early social intervention for ASD

Santa Barbara
State/Province Full: 
United States

Young children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) have social difficulties and limited motivation to engage with other people, which have both immediate and long-term implications for their development. If toddlers are not inclined to pay attention to other people, they miss out on critical social learning that is vital for typical social and mental development. Children with autism do, however, demonstrate strong levels of motivation and engagement with certain characteristics of their environment. Research has demonstrated that when watching a scene that possesses both social (i.e. kids playing) and non-social features (i.e. toys, objects), typically developing children closely watch the social interaction while children with autism are more attracted to the objects and physical cause-and-effect occurrences. This project will evaluate a novel social intervention that takes advantage of this existing attraction and motivation for select non-social objects. Specifically, the investigative team will identify the specific characteristics that make certain non-social interests compelling to children with autism and then incorporate these traits into an equally motivating social activity. In this study, the plan is to embed these social activities within an established behavior intervention to improve children’s social-communication skills. The study participants will be young children with ASD and their parents. For six months, families will receive a combination of parent-education and direct delivery of this novel social intervention. The research team will use three primary strategies to measure the children’s response to the treatment. First, the investigators will use eye-tracking technology while children watch a series of videos to note changes in their visual preference for people versus objects. The investigative team can then examine if their gaze patterns differ from children with autism who are receiving available community interventions and more closely resemble those of typically developing children. The investigators will also examine videos of parent and children interactions to note changes in key social behaviors, such as eye contact, language, and directed facial expressions. Finally, changes in scores will be examined on a variety of developmental, language, autism, and daily functioning assessments as another means of assessing intervention change. It is anticipated that participants will experience significant changes in core social behaviors, which would likely impact long-term social development.