Children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) often exhibit a wide variety of symptoms and severity characterized by abnormal social interaction, communication, and behaviors. Previous research has shown children on the spectrum frequently have a difficult time making eye contact during conversation. Knowing this, a team of researchers from the University of Vermont designed eye tracking technology using Skype to see what words trigger changes in children’s eye movement.

“When a child with ASD engages with me, they don’t just watch me passively, they have to monitor my engagement, think about what I’m doing, my tone, and my affect to get my full meaning, and that’s really different than passively observing something,” said the study’s lead author Tiffany Hutchins, assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences, in a statement.

For the study, published in the journal Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, Hutchins and her research team recruited 18 children who were diagnosed with ASD between the ages of six and 12 years old, and another group of 19 children with normal development. They set up Skype, a software application that allows users to see one another through a webcam, for each child and recorded their eye movement as they engaged in conversation. Next, researchers used Mirametrix S2 Eye Tracker system to measure their eye movement during conversation.

The interaction shifted from neutral to emotional topics in order to reveal how the child’s eye contact changed depending upon the mood of the conversation. At first, researchers would monitor participants’ eyes during a boring conversation, like asking what they did when they woke up this morning. Next, they switched to topics that would trigger emotions, like asking what makes the child sad or happy.

“Talking about emotions is really hard and very draining for children with ASD,” Hutchins said. "It’s like driving in a snowstorm. Normally, when you drive around in good weather on a familiar route, you go on automatic pilot. But for a child with ASD, having a conversation, especially one about emotions, is more like driving in a snowstorm. In that situation, you are totally focused, every move is tense and effortful. We found that decreased working memory correlated with decreased eye fixations, so as working memory decreases, then we see fewer fixations on the eyes.”

They found during emotional conversations, a child with ASD tended to break direct eye contact on the video chat and migrate their gaze towards the other person’s mouth. Researchers theorize it may be because emotions strain the same part of the brain that controls executive function, in which children with ASD tend to have limitations. Emotional conversations could be compounding the social and communication problems they tend to already have.

“It’s probably a situation where the poor are getting poorer,” Hutchins says. “If I’m asking you to talk about emotions, and that makes you even less likely to look in my eyes when you really need to go there because I’m more likely to be showing other evidence of an emotion like anger with my eyebrows, you are missing even more. It’s not that there’s no emotional information in the mouth, but during dynamic conversational exchanges they are missing a number of cues that a typically developing child would not.”

Currently, social therapy programs are invested in initiating and sustaining eye-contact during social interaction, which Hutchins believes may be worsening the situation in light of her team’s new findings. Researchers hope that by recording how children with ASD change their eye movement in response to the topic of conversation, it could improve how speech pathologists work with children in the future.

Source: Hutchins TL. Conversational topic moderates social attention in autism spectrum disorder: Talking about emotions is like driving in a snowstorm. Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders. 2016.