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Atypical gaze patterns in autistic adults are heterogeneous across but reliable within individuals

Keleş, Ümit and Kliemann, Dorit and Byrge, Lisa and Saarimäki, Heini and Paul, Lynn K. and Kennedy, Daniel P. and Adolphs, Ralph (2022) Atypical gaze patterns in autistic adults are heterogeneous across but reliable within individuals. Molecular Autism, 13 (1). Art. No. 39. ISSN 2040-2392. PMCID PMC9508778. doi:10.1186/s13229-022-00517-2.

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Background: Across behavioral studies, autistic individuals show greater variability than typically developing individuals. However, it remains unknown to what extent this variability arises from heterogeneity across individuals, or from unreliability within individuals. Here, we focus on eye tracking, which provides rich dependent measures that have been used extensively in studies of autism. Autistic individuals have an atypical gaze onto both static visual images and dynamic videos that could be leveraged for diagnostic purposes if the above open question could be addressed. Methods: We tested three competing hypotheses: (1) that gaze patterns of autistic individuals are less reliable or noisier than those of controls, (2) that atypical gaze patterns are individually reliable but heterogeneous across autistic individuals, or (3) that atypical gaze patterns are individually reliable and also homogeneous among autistic individuals. We collected desktop-based eye tracking data from two different full-length television sitcom episodes, at two independent sites (Caltech and Indiana University), in a total of over 150 adult participants (N = 48 autistic individuals with IQ in the normal range, 105 controls) and quantified gaze onto features of the videos using automated computer vision-based feature extraction. Results: We found support for the second of these hypotheses. Autistic people and controls showed equivalently reliable gaze onto specific features of videos, such as faces, so much so that individuals could be identified significantly above chance using a fingerprinting approach from video epochs as short as 2 min. However, classification of participants into diagnostic groups based on their eye tracking data failed to produce clear group classifications, due to heterogeneity in the autistic group. Limitations: Three limitations are the relatively small sample size, assessment across only two videos (from the same television series), and the absence of other dependent measures (e.g., neuroimaging or genetics) that might have revealed individual-level variability that was not evident with eye tracking. Future studies should expand to larger samples across longer longitudinal epochs, an aim that is now becoming feasible with Internet- and phone-based eye tracking. Conclusions: These findings pave the way for the investigation of autism subtypes, and for elucidating the specific visual features that best discriminate gaze patterns—directions that will also combine with and inform neuroimaging and genetic studies of this complex disorder.

Item Type:Article
Related URLs:
URLURL TypeDescription CentralArticle
Kliemann, Dorit0000-0003-2069-919X
Byrge, Lisa0000-0001-8554-1401
Paul, Lynn K.0000-0002-3128-8313
Kennedy, Daniel P.0000-0002-5915-0893
Adolphs, Ralph0000-0002-8053-9692
Additional Information:We are grateful to Tim Armstrong, Steven Lograsso, Susannah Ferguson, Brad Caron, and Arispa Weigold for help with data collection, David Kahn for comments on the manuscript, and all our participants and their families for their participation in this time-intensive study. This research was supported in part by grant R01MH110630 from NIMH (DPK/RA), the Simons Foundation Autism Research Initiative (RA), the Simons Foundation Collaboration on the Global Brain (542951; UK), and the Eagles Autism Foundation (DK).
Funding AgencyGrant Number
Simons Foundation Autism Research InitiativeUNSPECIFIED
Simons Foundation542951
Eagles Autism FoundationUNSPECIFIED
Issue or Number:1
PubMed Central ID:PMC9508778
Record Number:CaltechAUTHORS:20221003-756400000.2
Persistent URL:
Usage Policy:No commercial reproduction, distribution, display or performance rights in this work are provided.
ID Code:117198
Deposited By: Melissa Ray
Deposited On:04 Oct 2022 21:06
Last Modified:04 Oct 2022 21:06

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