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Eye Gaze Research

As early diagnosis and treatment efforts soar, so does the need to identify novel characteristics that may indicate a toddler's risk for manifesting autism. An interesting feature of the human visual system is the fact that typically developing infants prefer to visually scan social images such as faces from the first days of life. Not only do they prefer faces, but new studies suggest that they even prefer to look at human biological motion over non-human objects.

Eye movements guide learning, and given these biases, the typically developing newborn selectively stimulates the part of their brain relating to social images beginning from birth.

Eye Tracking Technology

Eye tracking technology holds promise as an objective methodology for characterizing the early features of autism because it can be implemented with virtually any age or functioning level.

At the UC San Diego Autism Center of Excellence, Dr. Karen Pierce and her team are using eye tracking technology to discover if eye tracking patterns can be used as an early warning sign for autism. They believe that an infant's choice of what to look at from the first days of life can signify if that child is at risk for developing autism.

Research Study Outcomes

In an eye tracking study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry in 2010, infants as young as 14 months who eventually went on to receive a final diagnosis of autism looked at movies of geometric shapes more often than movies of children dancing and doing yoga. The reverse was true for 51 typically developing infants and toddlers who all (with one exception) preferred to look at the "social" images.

In this study, toddlers were seated on their parent's lap and allowed to watch a movie containing moving geometric patterns on one side of an eye tracking monitor and children dancing and doing yoga on the other.

If a toddler examined geometric shapes more than 70% of the time, the probability of accurately classifying that toddler as having an autism spectrum disorder was 100%. This study is one clear example of how eye tracking technology can be used to discover early markers of autism.

Read the abstract

GeoPref Test For Autism

Here are 15-second video clips of sample eye gaze data from the GeoPref Test of two subjects: one from a typically developing (TD) toddler, and another from an autism spectrum disorder (ASD) toddler. The red dot on the screen indicates where the toddler is looking. The GeoPref Eye-Tracking Test developed by Dr. Karen Pierce, Copyright 2010, The Regents of the University of California. All rights reserved. Yoga clips courtesy of Gaiam Americas Inc., Copyright 2003, Gaiam Americas, Inc.

Clip of 14-month-old TD toddler eye gaze

Clip of 15-month-old ASD toddler eye gaze