Eye Tracking Reveals Abnormal Visual Preference for Geometric Images as an Early Biomarker of an Autism Spectrum Disorder Subtype Associated With Increased Symptom Severity

Biol Psychiatry. 2016 Apr 15;79(8):657-66. doi: 10.1016/j.biopsych.2015.03.032. Epub 2015 Apr 11.


Background: Clinically and biologically, autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is heterogeneous. Unusual patterns of visual preference as indexed by eye tracking are hallmarks; however, whether they can be used to define an early biomarker of ASD as a whole or leveraged to define a subtype is unclear. To begin to examine this issue, large cohorts are required.

Methods: A sample of 334 toddlers from six distinct groups (115 toddlers with ASD, 20 toddlers with ASD features, 57 toddlers with developmental delay, 53 toddlers with other conditions [e.g., premature birth, prenatal drug exposure], 64 toddlers with typical development, and 25 unaffected toddlers with siblings with ASD) was studied. Toddlers watched a movie containing geometric and social images. Fixation duration and number of saccades within each area of interest and validation statistics for this independent sample were computed. Next, to maximize power, data from our previous study (n = 110) were added for a total of 444 subjects. A subset of toddlers repeated the eye-tracking procedure.

Results: As in the original study, a subset of toddlers with ASD fixated on geometric images >69% of the time. Using this cutoff, sensitivity for ASD was 21%, specificity was 98%, and positive predictive value was 86%. Toddlers with ASD who strongly preferred geometric images had 1) worse cognitive, language, and social skills relative to toddlers with ASD who strongly preferred social images and 2) fewer saccades when viewing geometric images. Unaffected siblings of ASD probands did not show evidence of heightened preference for geometric images. Test-retest reliability was good. Examination of age effects suggested that this test may not be appropriate with children >4 years old.

Conclusions: Enhanced visual preference for geometric repetition may be an early developmental biomarker of an ASD subtype with more severe symptoms.

Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; Early detection; Eye gaze; Eye tracking; Geometric preference; Visual attention.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Attention
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / diagnosis*
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / physiopathology
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder / psychology
  • Child, Preschool
  • Cohort Studies
  • Eye Movement Measurements
  • Eye Movements* / physiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Linear Models
  • Male
  • Photic Stimulation / methods
  • Psychiatric Status Rating Scales
  • ROC Curve
  • Reproducibility of Results
  • Sensitivity and Specificity
  • Severity of Illness Index
  • Siblings
  • Visual Perception*