Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Reduced Visual Exploration in Autism

Blog post by Dr Megan Freeth

The world around us is an extremely complex and often confusing place. There is so much detail in the visual environment that we could attend to, we can never actually see and process everything. There will always be small details that we miss, or, if we spend a lot of time focussing on the small details, we may even miss something really large and potentially very important for figuring out what is going on.

How we tend to explore our visual environments has a big impact on what we understand about that environment. In our latest piece of research, published in the Journal of Abnormal Psychology, we found that adolescents who have autism tend to visually explore their environments in a fundamentally different way to those who don’t. We created five new mathematical models for analysing eye-tracking data. By analysing our eye-tracking data using these newly created models we found that when people viewed a series of photographs, autistic viewers tend to consistently explore less of the scene overall than neurotypical viewers. Whereas when neurotypical adolescents viewed briefly presented scenes, throughout the first five seconds they continuously explored new areas, those with autism tended to slow down their exploration of new areas after about 2.5 seconds. Perhaps as time went by some of those with autism felt they had seen enough of the scenes already or perhaps something captured their interest so they tended to look at certain things in a bit more detail. We also found that those with autism were more likely to explore areas close to where they were already looking compared to neurotypical individuals who tended to look at areas that were further away. We checked whether this had any impact on how scenes were described and we found that those with autism were significantly more likely to miss large areas from their scene descriptions than those without autism.

From this new research we don’t know whether one strategy is “better” than another, we just know that there are fundamental differences in how the world is viewed by those with and without autism. Perhaps it is not surprising that those with autism have a different understanding and interpretation of the world compared to those who don’t, as it seems the parts of the world that are actually seen are different in the first place so the brain of an autistic person will have a strikingly different input to someone that doesn’t have autism. We would argue that this all contributes to creating a rich, neurodiverse world and it is likely a good thing for society that different people see and interpret the world in different ways. It also must be a good thing that different people are interested in different things as this will lead to finding alternative solutions to problems rather than us all looking at things in exactly the same way.

Free version of Heaton, T. & Freeth, M. (in press) Reduced Visual Exploration When Viewing Photographic Scenes in Individuals With Autism Spectrum Disorder. Journal of Abnormal Psychology: doi:10.1037/abn0000145

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