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Eye-Tracking Patterns in Infants with Autism

Eye-tracking is a method employed by researchers in order to follow and track an individual’s gaze and eye movement. It involves measuring where each eye is focused on as an individual is presented with a stimulus – an object, person, motion, etc. Eye-tracking is primarily utilized in the behavioral sciences, such as neuroscience and psychology. Specifically, it is a beneficial tool that is used to study human behavior and understand visual attention, and it is especially important in Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD) research.

As previously mentioned, the infant-caregiver dyad is an integral aspect of early development as these interactions determine the infant’s emotional and cognitive development by helping to sculpt the developing brain. Infant-caregiver dyadic interactions have been hypothesized to be disrupted in infants with ASD, and this hypothesis is further supported by many eye-tracking studies conducted with individuals with autism (Shultz et al., 2018). By employing the eye-tracking method, researchers have learned and conducted many discoveries regarding infants with autism.

Numerous research studies illustrate that infants with ASD choose to orient their eyes to a different part of the presented stimulus in comparison to typically developing infants. Specifically, infants with autism spend more time looking at moving stimuli, such as the mouth, and less time at the eyes. While this finding is supported by several other studies, it was initially prompted by the first eye-tracking study of individuals with autism at the University of North Carolina. This 2002 research investigation tracked the eye movements of five adults with autism, and results from this study demonstrated that individuals with ASD tend to spend less time looking at the eyes and noses of people (Pelphrey et al., 2002).

While it is widely established that infants with autism tend to look at moving stimuli, no studies have explored eye-tracking and infant-caregiver interactions in infants with ASD before 6 months of age (Shultz et al., 2018). An innovative and advanced theory of ASD pathogenesis (Shultz et al., TiCS, 2018) discusses possible infant-caregiver disruptions and how these may occur in dyads that contain infants with autism. It is suggested that “while typical predispositions for signaling behaviors may initially be present in newborns with ASD, diminished sensitivity to contingent caregiver behaviors may lead to increasingly atypical social behavior” (Shultz et al., 2018). In order to confirm this theory, further long-term eye-tracking research with infant-caregiver dyads needs to be conducted.

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