Link between eye movement and facial recognition in autism?

Autistic people keep visual processing strategy steady for face encoding and recognition.


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James McPartland, Ph.D., and Jason Griffin, Ph.D., from Yale School of Medicine, found that some teens with autism look at faces differently than those without autism. It’s been suggested that facial recognition eye movements reveal something about how autistic individuals interpret social cues differently from other people. Even though there are many different types of autism, all autistic persons share the tendency to engage with others in unusual ways.

Many research studies have focused on the issue of people with autism avoiding making eye contact. A study led by Griffin and McPartland used eye-tracking data to examine how teenagers with autism learn and remember faces. Although these teenagers had excellent recollections of faces, they only paid attention to one aspect of them. Thanks to this discovery, clinicians may be able to distinguish between various forms of autism.

Jason Gryphon is one of the researchers investigating the memory of faces in teenagers with autism. They examined data gathered from an experiment conducted by James McPartland two decades prior. In this study, teenagers—some of whom had autism—were asked to recall faces. At the same time, a camera on their heads monitored their eye movements.

The study found that autistic and non-autistic teens focused on a small part of the face while memorizing it. However, when shown the same face later, non-autistic teens would look around at different parts of the face, while teens with autism kept looking at the same spot.

The meaning of this discovery has yet to be made clear. One idea is that teens with autism might focus intensely on a face to help them remember it better. But why they do this differently is still being determined, according to McPartland.Still, these results may help distinguish between various forms of autism. There are many different types of autism, and understanding more about them might help with future planning—such as determining what kind of care they might require. 

McPartland and his team want to study this more with a bigger group of people with autism to see if they can find new ways to understand how they look at faces and recognize them.

McPartland said, “For a condition that has been studied intensely for a long time, there’s surprisingly little we know with certainty.” He hopes that studying these differences will help clinicians better understand the condition and how to help their patients.

People with ASD have different ways of looking at things with their eyes. However, how this affects their ability to recognize faces needs to be clarified. Researchers need to do more research to understand this better. This study shows that we need to think about many things when we try to understand how people with autism understand social situations.

Journal reference:

  1. Griffin, J.W., Webb, S.J., Keehn, B. et al. Autistic Individuals Do Not Alter Visual Processing Strategy During Encoding Versus Recognition of Faces: A Hidden Markov Modeling Approach. The Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders. DOI: 10.1007/s10803-024-06259-9.


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