Children with autism often have trouble reading emotions. It’s difficult for them to tell a happy face from a sad one.
New research from the University of Vermont has uncovered part of the reason: Using eye-tracking technology, the researchers found that children with autism fixate longer on a speaker’s mouth — rather than the eyes — when the conversation turns emotional.
The findings could change the way speech therapists help treat children who struggle with communication challenges stemming from autism spectrum disorder.
VPR spoke with the lead author of the study, Tiffany Hutchins, a professor of communication sciences and disorders in the College of Nursing and Health Sciences at UVM.
Hutchins says studies focusing on how children with autism read faces have shown mixed results over the years. But she says this is one of the first times researchers studied children’s eye movement during an actual interactive conversation — as opposed to showing children pictures or videos.
“That requires that you monitor your speaking and partner's engagement and that you have to monitor their tone and their effect to get the full meaning,” says Hutchins.
“And what we've found is that for children with autism — compared to typically developing children — topic of conversation matters.”
Hutchins says during conversations about mundane topics like “what people do for work,” children with autism will watch the speaking person’s mouth more than typically developing children.
“But the very interesting finding was that effect is exaggerated when we engage children in conversations about thoughts and feelings. Because that's really hard,” she says.
Hutchins says talking about emotional topics taxes the brain of children with autism, and that could be why their focus turns to the mouth during these difficult conversations.
“So then we ask our participants, ‘What makes you happy? What makes you sad?' We saw a much more atypical visual attention and our children with [autism spectrum disorder]. They left the eye region of the face and they went to the mouth region of the face.”
Kids who are typically developing, she says, show the exact opposite pattern.
On why focusing on eyes is so hard
Hutchins says when we ask children with autism to do something difficult, like talk about emotions, these requests are taxing the brain’s executive function.
“And so from a resource-allocation standpoint, we think that children with [autism spectrum disorder] are abandoning the eye region of the face in an [emotional] situation in favor of mouth stimuli.”
She says mouths are big, they move and create sound, and this make them easier to perceive.
So by asking a child to focus on eyes and emotions, she says, “we think what's happening is that we are taxing the system. We're creating drains on attentional resources, something called executive function. And then when that happens you decrease working memory. So we think they're not going to the eye region because working memory is taxed.”
On eye tracking technology
Hutchins says eye-tracking technology has come a very long way in recent years.
“The [eye tracking device] shoots out a little bit of infrared light, and it relies on corneal reflection so it can gauge where eyeballs are going,” she says.
Hutchins and her team used Skype for a live interactive video chat with the children and tracked their eye movement during various points of the conversation. The study involved 37 children ages 6 to 12, about half of whom had autism spectrum disorder.
Hutchins says that much of the research on communication and children with autism focuses on high functioning individuals, including children who have relatively strong language skills.
“What hasn't been looked at is children with the more severe challenges, more limited language, and more limited intellectual abilities. So that's a real gap in the literature and the research,” she says.
She says part of the reason for this shortcoming is that it can be difficult to get some of these children into a situation where they can have a conversation.
“But there are ways that we can interact socially with children who are even non-verbal. And we really need to see how that population is responding.”
On how parents and teachers can communicate better
Hutchins says that it’s fairly common for many professionals and educators to include a goal of having children make direct eye contact as part of an individual education plan. But she says this study suggests this could be counterproductive to helping a child listen.
“When you're asking somebody with autism, when you're insisting that somebody with autism look you in the eye, which is commonly done … We hear from individuals with autism ... There is that subset who are going to tell you, ‘I don't want to look at you. It makes it hard for me to focus.’ Or, ‘It’s anxiety provoking.’"
“And you'll hear, 'Stop telling me to look at you, I'm trying to listen to you.'"
Hutchins says her team wants to help professionals to be thoughtful about the potential effects of insisting that a person look the speaker in the eye. It might actually be counterproductive to the cognitive system.
“Right now we are urging caution around those kinds of goals,” she says. “Is it more important for somebody to look you in the eye or is it more important … to actually able to create meaning and communicate better in a way that would not necessarily require eye contact?”