Friday, 16 February 2018

Eye-tracking face-to-face conversations with autistic adults

Summary of our new research paper

Effective communication involves attending to both verbal and non-verbal cues, such as facial expressions and gaze direction. Faces can convey a person’s thoughts and intentions or their emotional and mental state. In this study we investigated whether some of this information tends to be missed by autistic adults during a face-to-face conversation. An experimenter systematically modified her gaze direction between looking directly at a participant’s eyes or averting her gaze away from the participant’s face at pre-determined points during a face-to-face conversation with a participant. The participant wore an eye-tracking device which assessed exactly where they were looking.
We found that when the experimenter looked directly at the participant’s eyes, autistic adults tended to look at the experimenter’s face less than neurotypical adults did. However, when the experimenter averted her gaze, differences between groups in how much attention was directed to the face were minimal. Neurotypical adults had a distinct preference for the eyes vs. the mouth but autistic adults did not. Both groups tended to increase looks to the face when listening compared to speaking, indicating similar spontaneous conversation-phase attention modification. A particularly striking finding was how much attention strategies of autistic adults differed from one another. While some autistic adults’ social attention was at least as much as neurotypical adults, others made very little eye-contact throughout the whole conversation.
Our findings suggest that looking directly at an autistic adult’s eyes when having a conversation can cause them to miss opportunities, that they may otherwise take, to attend to information on a face.

Read the full article