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New insights into the autistic ‘point of view’

Researchers use complex, real-life scenes to track how autism influences the way people process what’s going on around them
October 26, 2015

A new study brings deeper understanding of the distinctive ways that autism influences how people view their world – in particular where they focus and what they miss when scanning a scene.

The researchers, from the California Institute of Technology, say their insights might guide future interventions that help those with autism better navigate daily life. Their report appears in the journal Neuron.

Previous research suggests that autism’s core symptoms of impaired social and communication skills are strongly shaped by how an affected person perceives the world. In particular, people with autism often lack the strong focus on faces that’s needed to read other people’s social cues.

In their study, the Caltech researchers endeavored to go beyond the simple truism that people with autism “don’t look at faces” to explore how they process complex real-life scenarios.  

Instead of showing study participants isolated images of single objects or faces, they asked them to look at hundreds of real-life scenes full of countless combinations of objects, people and animals.

"Complex images of natural scenes were a big part of this unique approach," says co-author Shuo Wang. “Having objects that are related in a natural way and that show something meaningful provides the semantic context. It is a real-world approach."

Twenty of the participants had autism. All were verbal, and none had intellectual disability. The researchers also enrolled a comparison group of 19 people unaffected by autism. They matched the two groups for age, race, gender, educational level and IQ.

Each subject viewed each scene for three seconds while an eye-tracking device recorded his or her attention patterns across the image.

The results confirmed previous research showing that people with autism are less drawn to faces than are other people. They also brought two new insights:

* Whatever the image, the participants with autism tended to focus on whatever was front and center in the scene before them.

* In addition, their attention tended to be caught by objects that stood out from the surroundings, regardless of whether it the object was important to what was going on.

"Our work shows that the story is not as simple as saying 'people with ASD don't look normally at faces,’” says co-author Ralph Adolphs. “They don't look at most things in a typical way.”

Dr. Adolphs plans to look for further insights by using brain imaging to track and compare the brain activity of people with or without autism while there are viewing scenes similar to those in this study.

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