The impact of social complexity on the visual exploration of others' actions in preschoolers with autism spectrum disorder

BMC Psychol. 2021 Mar 31;9(1):50. doi: 10.1186/s40359-021-00553-2.


Background: Typical development of socio-communicative skills relies on keen observation of others. It thus follows that decreased social attention negatively impacts the subsequent development of socio-communicative abilities in children with autism spectrum disorders (ASD). In addition, studies indicate that social attention is modulated by context and that greater social difficulties are observed in more socially demanding situations. Our study aims to investigate the effect of social complexity on visual exploration of others' actions in preschoolers.

Methods: To investigate the impact of social complexity, we used an eye-tracking paradigm with 26 typically developing preschoolers (TD, age = 3.60 ± 1.55) and 37 preschoolers with ASD (age = 3.55 ± 1.21). Participants were shown videos of two children engaging in socially simple play (parallel) versus socially complex play (interactive). We subsequently quantified the time spent and fixation duration on faces, objects, bodies, as well as the background and the number of spontaneous gaze shifts between socially relevant areas of interest.

Results: In the ASD group, we observed decreased time spent on faces. Social complexity (interactive play) elicited changes in visual exploration patterns in both groups. From the parallel to the interactive condition, we observed a shift towards socially relevant parts of the scene, a decrease in fixation duration, as well as an increase in spontaneous gaze shifts between faces and objects though there were fewer in the ASD group.

Limitations: Our results need to be interpreted cautiously due to relatively small sample sizes and may be relevant to male preschoolers, given our male-only sample and reported phenotypic differences between males and females.

Conclusion: Our results suggest that similar to TD children, though to a lesser extent, visual exploration patterns in ASD are modulated by context. Children with ASD that were less sensitive to context modulation showed decreased socio-communicative skills or higher levels of symptoms. Our findings support using naturalistic designs to capture socio-communicative deficits in ASD.

Keywords: Eye-tracking; Parallel Interactive play; Social complexity; Socio-communicative skills.

MeSH terms

  • Attention
  • Autism Spectrum Disorder*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Communication
  • Female
  • Fixation, Ocular
  • Humans
  • Male