Blink rate and facial orientation reveal distinctive patterns of attentional engagement in autistic toddlers: a digital phenotyping approach

Sci Rep. 2023 May 3;13(1):7158. doi: 10.1038/s41598-023-34293-7.


Differences in social attention are well-documented in autistic individuals, representing one of the earliest signs of autism. Spontaneous blink rate has been used to index attentional engagement, with lower blink rates reflecting increased engagement. We evaluated novel methods using computer vision analysis (CVA) for automatically quantifying patterns of attentional engagement in young autistic children, based on facial orientation and blink rate, which were captured via mobile devices. Participants were 474 children (17-36 months old), 43 of whom were diagnosed with autism. Movies containing social or nonsocial content were presented via an iPad app, and simultaneously, the device's camera recorded the children's behavior while they watched the movies. CVA was used to extract the duration of time the child oriented towards the screen and their blink rate as indices of attentional engagement. Overall, autistic children spent less time facing the screen and had a higher mean blink rate compared to neurotypical children. Neurotypical children faced the screen more often and blinked at a lower rate during the social movies compared to the nonsocial movies. In contrast, autistic children faced the screen less often during social movies than during nonsocial movies and showed no differential blink rate to social versus nonsocial movies.

Publication types

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

MeSH terms

  • Attention
  • Attentional Blink*
  • Autistic Disorder*
  • Child, Preschool
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Vision, Ocular