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Training Attention and Eye Movement in Autism Spectrum Disorder

Funded by NIH/NIMH (R21/R33 MH096967)

The major clinical symptoms in autism are difficulties with language and social interaction. In typical function, these higher level social, language and communication skills develop over the first few years of life and depend on the critical building blocks of sensory-motor, perceptual and attention abilities.

Similarly in autism, higher level problems with social communication are not the first to appear, but develop over the first two post-natal years. Consistent with this developmental principle, we and others have hypothesized a link between attention deficits and social function in autism.

Current behavioral treatments address specific social or communication skills; however, treatments that target underlying problems such as attention have the potential to affect these skills much more broadly, and in the case of very early interventions, to affect the overall course of development.

We are developing and testing a novel intervention to train the speed and accuracy of attention orienting and saccadic (side to side) eye movement behavior in ASD. This project has a strong scientific base, grounded by past studies of visual attention and its behavioral correlate: saccadic eye movements.

This project also provides the opportunity for objective outcome evaluation. The eye-tracking device is a portable system to be used at home over a period of weeks to months.

Training principles are embedded in a series of video games that will gradually shape behavior using visual and auditory feedback provided online in real time using eye tracking. We will conduct pre- and post-training behavioral assessments of attention orienting, eye movements, and measures of ASD symptoms associated with attention and orienting.

If this initial work is successful, the long term goal will be to develop a readily available inexpensive system for home use that is suitable for a broad age range of ASD children and adults.

Attention Training Games

Our pilot Attention Training Games suite consists of three games:

  • Mole Whack
  • Shroom Digger
  • Space Race