Original Research ARTICLE

Front. Psychol., 09 April 2013 | doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00185

Visual attention to dynamic faces and objects is linked to face processing skills: a combined study of children with autism and controls

  • 1Departments of Pediatrics and Psychiatry, Perelman School of Medicine, University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, PA, USA
  • 2Center for Autism Research, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, Philadelphia, PA, USA
  • 3Department of Clinical and Health Psychology, University of Florida, Gainesville, FL, USA

Although the extant literature on face recognition skills in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) shows clear impairments compared to typically developing controls (TDC) at the group level, the distribution of scores within ASD is broad. In the present research, we take a dimensional approach and explore how differences in social attention during an eye tracking experiment correlate with face recognition skills across ASD and TDC. Emotional discrimination and person identity perception face processing skills were assessed using the Let's Face It! Skills Battery in 110 children with and without ASD. Social attention was assessed using infrared eye gaze tracking during passive viewing of movies of facial expressions and objects displayed together on a computer screen. Face processing skills were significantly correlated with measures of attention to faces and with social skills as measured by the Social Communication Questionnaire (SCQ). Consistent with prior research, children with ASD scored significantly lower on face processing skills tests but, unexpectedly, group differences in amount of attention to faces (vs. objects) were not found. We discuss possible methodological contributions to this null finding. We also highlight the importance of a dimensional approach for understanding the developmental origins of reduced face perception skills, and emphasize the need for longitudinal research to truly understand how social motivation and social attention influence the development of social perceptual skills.

Keywords: autism, eye tracking, face processing, eyetracking, autism spectrum disorder, ASD

Citation: Parish-Morris J, Chevallier C, Tonge N, Letzen J, Pandey J and Schultz RT (2013) Visual attention to dynamic faces and objects is linked to face processing skills: a combined study of children with autism and controls. Front. Psychol. 4:185. doi: 10.3389/fpsyg.2013.00185

Received: 29 February 2012; Paper pending published: 23 April 2012;
Accepted: 26 March 2013; Published online: 10 April 2013.

Edited by:

Daniela P. Skwerer, Boston University, USA

Reviewed by:

Katarzyna Chawarska, Yale University School of Medicine, USA
Brandon Keehn, Children's Hospital Boston, USA

Copyright © 2013 Parish-Morris, Chevallier, Tonge, Letzen, Pandey and Schultz. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits use, distribution and reproduction in other forums, provided the original authors and source are credited and subject to any copyright notices concerning any third-party graphics etc.

*Correspondence: Robert T. Schultz, Center for Autism Research, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, 3535 Market Street, 8th floor, Suite 860, Philadelphia, PA 19104, USA. e-mail: schultzrt@email.chop.edu

These authors are co-first authors and contributed equally to this research.

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