Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders

, Volume 39, Issue 3, pp 421–431 | Cite as

Do Faces Capture the Attention of Individuals with Williams Syndrome or Autism? Evidence from Tracking Eye Movements

  • Deborah M. RibyEmail author
  • Peter J. B. Hancock
Original Paper


The neuro-developmental disorders of Williams syndrome (WS) and autism can reveal key components of social cognition. Eye-tracking techniques were applied in two tasks exploring attention to pictures containing faces. Images were (i) scrambled pictures containing faces or (ii) pictures of scenes with embedded faces. Compared to individuals who were developing typically, participants with WS and autism showed atypicalities of gaze behaviour. Individuals with WS showed prolonged face gaze across tasks, relating to the typical WS social phenotype. Participants with autism exhibited reduced face gaze, linking to a lack of interest in socially relevant information. The findings are interpreted in terms of wider issues regarding socio-cognition and attention mechanisms.


Williams syndrome Autism Face perception Social cognition 



The research presented in this paper was supported by funding from the Economic and Social Research Council (R000222030) to PJBH and DMR. We are grateful to all the individuals who participated in the research and to the WSF for their continued support


  1. Bar-Haim, Y., Shulman, C., Lamy, D., & Reuveni, A. (2006). Attention to eyes and mouth in high-functioning children with autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 36, 131–137. doi: 10.1007/s10803-005-0046-1.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  3. Behrmann, M., Thomas, C., & Humphreys, K. (2006). Seeing it differently: Visual processing in autism. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 10, 258–264. doi: 10.1016/j.tics.2006.05.001.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bellugi, U., Lichtenberg, L., Jones, W., Lai, Z., & St. George, R. (2000). The neurocognitive profile of Williams syndrome: A complex pattern of strengths and weaknesses. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12, 7–29. doi: 10.1162/089892900561959.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bird, G., Catmur, C., Silani, G., Frith, C., & Frith, U. (2006). Attention does not modulate neural responses to social stimuli in autism spectrum disorders. NeuroImage, 31, 1614–1624. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2006.02.037.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Boraston, Z., & Blakemore, S. J. (2007). The application of eye-tracking technology in the study of autism. The Journal of Physiology, 581, 893–898. doi: 10.1113/jphysiol.2007.133587.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Brock, J., Einav, S., & Riby, D. M. (2008). The other end of the spectrum? Social cognition in Williams syndrome. In V. Reid & T. Striano (Eds.), Social cognition: Development, neuroscience, and autism. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  8. Brown, V., Huey, D., & Findlay, J. M. (1997). Face detection in peripheral vision: Do faces pop out? Perception, 26, 1555–1570. doi: 10.1068/p261555.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Brown, J. H., Johnson, M. H., Paterson, S. J., Gilmore, R., Longhi, E., & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2003). Spatial representation and attention in toddlers with Williams syndrome and Down syndrome. Neuropsychologia, 41, 1037–1046. doi: 10.1016/S0028-3932(02)00299-3.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Burack, J. A. (1994). Selective attention deficits in persons with autism: Preliminary evidence of an inefficient attentional lens. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 103, 535–543. doi: 10.1037/0021-843X.103.3.535.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Cerf, M., Harel, J., Einhauser, W., & Koch, C. (2008). Predicting human gaze using low-level saliency combined with face detection. In J. C. Platt, D. Koller, Y. Singer, & S. Roweis (Eds.), Advances in neural information processing systems. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  12. Cornish, K., Scerif, G., & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2007). Tracing syndrome-specific trajectories of attention across the lifespan. Cortex, 43, 672–685. doi: 10.1016/S0010-9452(08)70497-0.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Dakin, S., & Frith, U. (2005). Vagaries of visual perception in autism. Neuron, 48, 497–507. doi: 10.1016/j.neuron.2005.10.018.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Dalton, K. M., Nacewicz, B. M., Johnstone, T., Schaefer, H. S., Gernsbacher, M. A., Goldsmith, H. H., et al. (2005). Gaze fixation and the neural circuitry of face processing in autism. Nature Neuroscience, 8, 519–526.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  15. Doherty-Sneddon, G., Riby, D. M., Calderwood, L., & Ainsworth, L. (submitted). The impact of the eyes. Evidence from William’s Syndrome. Google Scholar
  16. Doyle, T. F., Bellugi, U., Korenberg, J. R., & Graham, J. (2004). “Everybody in the world is my friend”: Hypersociability in young children with Williams syndrome. American Journal of Medical Genetics, 124, 263–273. doi: 10.1002/ajmg.a.20416.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Fletcher-Watson, S., Leekam, S. R., Findlay, J. M., & Stanton, E. C. (2008). Young adults with autism spectrum disorder show normal attention to eye-gaze information—Evidence from a new change blindness paradigm. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-008-0548-8.
  18. Fletcher-Watson, S., Leekam, S. R., Turner, M. A., & Moxon, L. (2006). Do people with autistic spectrum disorder show normal selection for attention? Evidence from change blindness. The British Journal of Psychology, 97, 537–554. doi: 10.1348/000712606X114057.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Frigerio, E., Burt, D. M., Gagliardi, C., Cioffi, G., Martelli, S., Perrett, D. I., et al. (2006). Is everybody always my friend? Perception of approachability in Williams syndrome. Neuropsychologia, 44, 254–259. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2005.05.008.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Frith, U. (1989). Autism: Explaining the enigma. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  21. Goodman, R. (2001). Psychometric properties of the strengths and difficulties questionnaire. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40, 1337–1345.Google Scholar
  22. Gosch, A., & Pankau, R. (1997). Personality characteristics and behaviour problems in individuals of different ages with Williams syndrome. Developmental Medicine and Child Neurology, 39, 527–533.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Hooge, I. T. C., & Eerkelens, C. J. (1996). Control of fixation duration in a simple search task. Perception & Psychophysics, 58, 969–976.Google Scholar
  24. Jacobs, A. M. (1986). Eye-movement control in visual search: How direct is visual span control? Perception & Psychophysics, 39, 47–58.Google Scholar
  25. Jawaid, A., Schmolck, H., & Schulz, P. E. (2008). Hypersociability in Williams Syndrome: A role for the Amygdala? Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 13, 338–342. doi: 10.1080/13546800802243334.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Jones, W., Bellugi, U., Lai, Z., Chiles, M., Reilly, J., Lincoln, A., et al. (2000). Hypersociability: The social and affective phenotype of Williams syndrome. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 12, 30–46. doi: 10.1162/089892900561968.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Karmiloff-Smith, A., Thomas, M., Annaz, D., Humphreys, K., Ewing, S., Brace, N., et al. (2004). Exploring the Williams syndrome face processing debate: The importance of building developmental trajectories. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 45, 1258–1274. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00322.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R., Volkmar, F., & Cohen, D. (2002). Visual fixation patterns during viewing of naturalistic social situations as predictors of social competence in individuals with autism. Archives of General Psychiatry, 59, 809–816. doi: 10.1001/archpsyc.59.9.809.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Landry, R., & Bryson, S. E. (2004). Impaired disengagement of attention in young children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 45, 1115–1122. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-7610.2004.00304.x.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Lewis, M. B., & Edmonds, A. J. (2003). Face detection: Mapping human performance. Perception, 32, 903–920. doi: 10.1068/p5007.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Lewis, M. B., & Edmunds, A. J. (2005). Searching for faces in scrambled scenes. Visual Cognition, 12, 1309–1336. doi: 10.1080/13506280444000535.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Loftus, G. R., & Mackworth, N. H. (1978). Cognitive determinants of fixation location during picture viewing. Journal of Experimental Psychology. Human Perception and Performance, 4, 565–572. doi: 10.1037/0096-1523.4.4.565.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Mervis, C. B., Morris, C. A., Klein, T., Bonita, P., Bertrand, J., Kwitny, S., et al. (2003). Attentional characteristics of infants and toddlers with Williams syndrome during triadic interactions. Developmental Neuropsychology, 23, 243–268. doi: 10.1207/S15326942DN231&2_11.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Morris, C. A., & Mervis, C. B. (1999). Williams syndrome. In C. R. Reynolds & S. Goldstein (Eds.), Handbook of neurodevelopmental and genetic disorders in children. New York, NY: Guilford Press.Google Scholar
  35. Palermo, R., & Rhodes, G. (2003). Change detection in the flicker paradigm: Do faces have an advantage? Visual Cognition, 10, 683–713. doi: 10.1080/13506280344000059.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Palermo, R., & Rhodes, G. (2007). Are you always on my mind? A review of how face perception and attention interact. Neuropsychologia, 45, 75–92. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2006.04.025.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Pelphrey, K. A., Sasson, N. J., Reznick, J. S., Paul, G., Goldman, B. D., & Piven, J. (2002). Visual Scanning of Faces in Autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 32, 249–261. doi: 10.1023/A:1016374617369.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Pollatsek, A., Rayner, K., & Balota, D. A. (1986). Inferences about eye movement control from the perceptual span in reading. Perception & Psychophysics, 40, 123–130.Google Scholar
  39. Porter, M. A., Coltheart, M., & Langdon, R. (2007). The neuropsychological basis of hypersociability in Williams and down syndrome. Neuropsychologia, 45, 2839–2849. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2007.05.006.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  40. Purcell, D. G., & Stewart, A. L. (1986). The face-detection effect. Bulletin of the Psychomonic Society, 24, 118–120.Google Scholar
  41. Raven, J. C., Court, J. H., & Raven, J. (1990). Raven’s coloured progressive matrices. Oxford: Oxfords Psychologists Press.Google Scholar
  42. Riby, D. M., Doherty-Sneddon, G., & Bruce, V. (2008a). Atypical unfamiliar face processing in Williams syndrome: What can it tell us about typical familiarity effects? Cognitive Neuropsychiatry, 13, 47–58. doi: 10.1080/13546800701779206.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Riby, D. M., Doherty-Sneddon, G., & Bruce, V. (2008b). Exploring face perception in disorders of development: Evidence from Williams syndrome and autism. Journal of Neuropsychology, 2, 47–64. doi: 10.1348/174866407X255690.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  44. Riby, D. M., & Hancock, P. J. B. (2008). Viewing it differently: Social scene perception in Williams syndrome and Autism. Neuropsychologia, 46, 2855–2860. doi: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2008.05.003.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  45. Riby, D. M., & Hancock, P. J. B. (submitted). Looking at movies and cartoons: Eye-tracking evidence from Williams syndrome and Autism. Journal of Intellectual Disability Research.Google Scholar
  46. Ro, T., Russell, C., & Lavie, N. (2001). Changing faces: A detection advantage in the flicker paradigm. Psychological Science, 12, 94–99. doi: 10.1111/1467-9280.00317.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Scerif, G., Cornish, K., Wilding, J., Driver, J., & Karmiloff-Smith, A. (2004). Visual search in typically developing toddlers and toddlers with Fragile X or Williams syndrome. Developmental Science, 7, 116–130. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-7687.2004.00327.x.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  48. Schopler, E., Rechler, R. J., & Rochen Renner, B. R. (1988). The childhood autism rating scale. LA: Western Psychological Services.Google Scholar
  49. Speer, L. L., Cook, A. E., McMahon, W. M., & Clark, E. (2007). Face processing in children with autism: Effects of stimulus contents and type. Autism, 11, 265–277. doi: 10.1177/1362361307076925.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  50. Swettenham, J., Baron-Cohen, S., Charman, T., Cox, A., Baird, G., Drew, A., et al. (1998). The frequency and distribution of spontaneous attention shifts between social and non-social stimuli in autistic, typically developing and non-autistic developmentally delayed infants. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 39, 747–753. doi: 10.1017/S0021963098002595.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  51. Tager-Flusberg, H., Plesa Skwerer, D., & Joseph, R. M. (2006). Model syndromes for investigating social cognitive and affective neuroscience: A comparison of autism and Williams syndrome. Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 1, 175–182. doi: 10.1093/scan/nsl035.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Theeuwes, J., & van der Stigchel, S. (2006). Faces capture attention: Evidence from inhibition of return. Visual Cognition, 13, 657–665. doi: 10.1080/13506280500410949.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  53. Underwood, G., & Foulsham, T. (2005). Visual saliency and semantic incongruency influence eye movements when inspecting pictures. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 59, 1931–1949. doi: 10.1080/17470210500416342.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. van der Geest, J. N., Kemner, C., Verbaten, M. N., & van Engeland, H. (2002). Gaze behaviour of children with pervasive developmental disorder toward human faces: A fixation time study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 43, 669–678. doi: 10.1111/1469-7610.00055.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  55. Vuilleumier, P. (2002). Facial expression and selective attention. Current Opinion in Psychiatry, 15, 291–300. doi: 10.1097/00001504-200205000-00011.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PsychologyNewcastle UniversityNewcastle upon TyneUK
  2. 2.Department of PsychologyStirling UniversityStirlingScotland, UK

Personalised recommendations