Do Gaze Cues in Complex Scenes Capture and Direct the Attention of High Functioning Adolescents with ASD? Evidence from Eye-tracking

  • M. Freeth
  • P. Chapman
  • D. Ropar
  • P. Mitchell
Original Paper


Visual fixation patterns whilst viewing complex photographic scenes containing one person were studied in 24 high-functioning adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) and 24 matched typically developing adolescents. Over two different scene presentation durations both groups spent a large, strikingly similar proportion of their viewing time fixating the person’s face. However, time-course analyses revealed differences between groups in priorities of attention to the region of the face containing the eyes. It was also noted that although individuals with ASD were rapidly cued by the gaze direction of the person in the scene, this was not followed by an immediate increase in total fixation duration at the location of gaze, which was the case for typically developing individuals.


Eye-tracking Autism Social scenes Gaze following Time-course analysis 



This research would have been impossible without the kind cooperation of the staff, students, and parents involved in the studies. Participating schools included Aldercar Community Language College, Bigwood School, Bracken Hill, Bramcote Park and Enterprise School, Cruckton Hall, Foxwood, The Long Eaton School, Ysgol Plas Brondyffryn. This research was funded by a PhD studentship from the University of Nottingham, School of Psychology awarded to the first author and Economic and Social Research Council grant number PTA-026-27-2283.


  1. American Psychiatric Association. (1994). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (4th ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association.Google Scholar
  2. Baldwin, D. (1995). Understanding the link between joint attention and language acquisition. In C. Moore & P. Dunham (Eds.), Joint attention: Its origins and role in development. Hillsdale, NJ: Erlbaum.Google Scholar
  3. Baron-Cohen, S. (1995). Mindblindness: An essay on autism and theory of mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.Google Scholar
  4. Baron-Cohen, S., Wheelwright, S., Hill, J., Raste, Y., & Plumb, I. (2001). The “Reading the Mind in the Eyes” test revised version: A study with normal adults, and adults with asperger syndrome or high-functioning autism. The Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 42, 241–251.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Bayliss, A. R., & Tipper, S. P. (2005). Gaze and arrow cueing of attention reveals individual differences along the autism spectrum as a function of target context. British Journal of Psychology, 96, 95–114.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  6. Birmingham, E., Bischof, W. F., & Kingstone, A. (2008). Social attention and real-world scenes: The roles of action, competition and social content. The Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 61(7), 986–998.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  7. Boucher, R. P., & Lewis, V. (1992). Unfamilar face recognition in relatively able autistic children. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 33, 843–859.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  8. Bruner, J. (1983). Child’s talk: Learning to use language. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Chawarska, K., Klin, A., & Volkmar, F. (2003). Automatic attention cueing through eye movement in 2-year-old children with autism. Child Development, 74(4), 1108–1122.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  10. Chawarska, K., & Shic, F. (in press). Looking but not seeing: Atypical visual scanning and recognition of faces in 2 and 4-year-old children with Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. doi: 10.1007/s10803-009-0803-7.
  11. Dalton, K. M., Nacewicz, B. M., Johnstone, T., Schafer, 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
  12. Dawson, G., Meltzoff, A. N., Osterling, J., & Rinaldi, J. (1998). Neuropsychological correlates of early symptoms of autism. Child Development, 69, 1276–1285.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  13. Dawson, G., Toth, K., Abbott, R., Osterling, J., Munson, J., Estes, A., et al. (2004). Early social attention impairments in autism: Social orienting, joint attention, and attention to distress. Developmental Psychology, 40, 271–283.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  14. Driver, J., Davis, G., Ricciardelli, P., Kidd, P., Maxwell, E., & Baron-Cohen, S. (1999). Gaze perception triggers reflexive visuospatial orienting. Visual Cognition, 6, 509–540.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Ehlers, S., Gillberg, C., & Wing, L. (1999). A screening questionnaire for asperger syndrome and other high-functioning autism spectrum disorders in school age children. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 29(2), 129–141.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  16. Fletcher-Watson, S., Leekam, S. R., Benson, V., Frank, M. C., & Findlay, J. M. (2009). Eye-movements reveal attention to social information in autism spectrum disorder. Neuropsychologia, 47, 248–257.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  17. Friesen, C. K., & Kingstone, A. (1998). The eyes have it! Reflexive orienting is triggered by nonpredictive gaze. Psychonomic Bulletin & Review, 5(3), 490–495.Google Scholar
  18. Goren, C. C., Sarty, M., & Wu, P. Y. K. (1975). Visual following and pattern discrimination of face-like stimuli by newborn infants. Pediatrics, 56, 544–549.PubMedGoogle Scholar
  19. Haith, M. M., Bergman, T., & Moore, M. J. (1979). Eye contact and face scanning in early infancy. Science, 198, 853–854.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Johnson, M., Dziurawiec, S., Ellis, H. D., & Morton, J. (1991). Newborns’ preferential tracking of face-like stimuli and its subsequent decline. Cognition, 40, 1–19.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  21. Jones, W., & Klin, A. (2008). Altered salience in autism. In E. McGregor, M. Nuez, K. Cebula, & J. C. Gomez (Eds.), Autism: An integrated view from neurocognitive, clinical and intervention research (pp. 62–82). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  22. Joseph, R. M., & Tanaka, J. (2003). Holistic and part-based face recognition in children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 44(4), 529–542.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  23. Klin, A., Jones, W., Schultz, R., & Volkmar, F. (2003). The enactive mind, or from actions to cognition: lessons from autism. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences, 358(1430), 345–360.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. 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(9), 809–816.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  25. Langton, S. R. H., & Bruce, V. (1999). Reflexive visual orienting in response to the social attention of others. Visual Cognition, 6(5), 541–567.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Leekam, S. R., Hunnisett, E., & Moore, C. (1998). Targets and cues: Gaze-following in children with autism. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry and Allied Disciplines, 39, 951–962.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Leekam, S. R., Lopez, B., & Moore, C. (2000). Attention and joint attention in preschool children with autism. Developmental Psychology, 36(2), 261–273.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  28. 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(4), 249–261.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  29. Riby, D., & Hancock, P. J. B. (2008). Research note: Viewing it differently: social scene perception in Williams syndrome and autism. Neuropsychologia, 46, 2855–2860.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  30. Ristic, J., Mottron, L., Friesen, C. K., Iarocci, G., Burack, J. A., & Kingstone, A. (2005). Eyes are special but not for everyone: The case of autism. Cognitive Brain Research, 24, 715–718.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  31. Senju, A., Csibra, G., & Johnson, M. H. (2008). Understanding the referential nature of looking: Infants’ preference for object-directed gaze. Cognition, 108, 303–319.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  32. Skuse, D. (2006). Genetic influences on the neural basis of social cognition. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 361, 2129–2141.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Skuse, D. H. (2007). Rethinking the nature of genetic vulnerability to autistic spectrum disorders. Trends in Genetics, 23(8), 387–395.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  34. 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(3), 265–277.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  35. Spezio, M. L., Adolphs, R., Hurley, R. S. E., & Piven, J. (2007). Abnormal use of facial information in high-functioning autism. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 37, 929–939.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  36. 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, 39, 747–753.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar
  37. Swettenham, J., Condie, S., Campbell, R., Milne, E., & Coleman, M. (2003). Does the perception of moving eyes trigger reflexive visual orienting in autism? Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London Series B-Biological Sciences, 358(1430), 325–334.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. van der Geest, J. N., Kemner, C., Verbaten, M. N., & van Engeland, H. (2002). Gaze behavior of children with pervasive developmental disorder toward human faces: A fixation time study. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 43(5), 669–678.CrossRefPubMedGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of PsychologyUniversity of NottinghamNottinghamUK
  2. 2.Psychology DepartmentUniversity of SheffieldSheffieldUK

Personalised recommendations