A review of: de JONG, M.C., van ENGELAND, H., KEMNER, C. (2008). Attentional Effects of Gaze Shifts Are Influenced by Emotion and Spatial Frequency, but Not in Autism. Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, 47(4), 443-454. DOI: 10.1097/CHI.0b013e31816429a6

This elegant experimental study comes to us from the Rudolf Magnus Institute of Neuroscience in the Netherlands. The researchers wanted to address a paradox in the Autism research literature: Although gaze following difficulties (specifically limited or absent gaze following) is a clinical hallmark of ASDs, many experimental studies have failed to replicate this phenomena in the laboratory (see for example Kemmer et al., 2006 & Senju et al., 2004). Gaze following refers to the re-direction of one’s attention towards the same location of someone else’s gaze direction. For example, if you are talking to a 2-year-old child and abruptly turn your head (or you eyes) to your left to see something, the child will immediately turn, arguably “to see what you are looking at.” The authors hypothesized that a possible explanation for problems with gaze following in children with ASDs is that these children have difficulty processing the emotional content intrinsic to facial expressions, and that such emotional content plays a critical role in triggering a re-orientation of attention by the observer. Specifically, the authors argued that this difficulty in the processing of emotional information is due to a bias towards processing local (detail) information instead of global information. So when looking at a face, research suggests that children with ASDs focus on details such as wrinkles and shapes, etc) instead of the ‘whole’ expression of the face. To test this hypothesis, the researchers examined 30 children with ASDs (diagnosed by a psychiatrist via ADI) with IQ over 80 and matched controls (matched for sex, age, and IQ). The children were presented with naturalistic pictures of faces with either a neutral of fearful expression and with straight or averted eye direction. Two conditions were presented, a neutral-to-fear condition and a fear-to-neutral condition. In the neutral-to-fear condition, a neutral face with straight gaze was followed by a fearful face with averted gaze. In the fearful-to-neutral condition, a fearful face with straight gaze was followed by a neutral face with averted gaze. An additional condition was also added: blurriness. In some pictures the face was blurry, making it more difficult to focus on the details of the picture (I did not review the results of these last conditions). The overall results were in partly line with the researchers’ hypotheses. Although the authors concluded that “impaired gaze following in ASDs is related to impaired emotion processing,” this conclusion was based on 1) a pattern of neruphysiological data that I did not review in this summary and 2) a differential pattern in ‘cue validity’ effect. Although a full explanation of cue validity effects goes beyond the scope of this review, the findings suggest that for typically developing children, when a discrepant emotional cue was presented (incorrect cue)a delay in reaction time in gaze following was observed when comparing reaction time to a fear face with the divergent gaze vs. a neutral face with divergent gaze. The children with ASDs did not show this pattern. That is, the speed of gaze following of typically developing children was affected when the presentation of the fear face was preceded by an incorrect cue. This is the traditional effect that you expect. However, the children with autism did not seem to be affected by this incorrect cue.


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2 Responses to Limited processing of facial expressions may explain limited gaze following in children with Austim

  1. Setting aside–as you did–the findings re spatial frequencies and ERPs, your description is not entirely consistent with what is reported in the paper (which I’ve only skimmed).

    E.g., the authors state clearly that,

    “In none of the conditions was there a significant difference between the control group and the ASD group in absolute RTs or number of correct responses.”

    Also, re performance involving images supposed to represent dynamic facial expressions, the authors state that the “pattern of results” for RTs “did not reach significance in the overall analysis.”

    In this case, the “pattern of results” was not related to absolute RTs or accuracy (which did not differ between groups) or to anything called a “facilitation effect” (not mentioned in the paper).

    The “pattern of results” was about cue validity effects (which involve comparing RTs for incorrectly vs correctly cued trials), and this result was not significant, according to the authors.

  2. Dear Michelle Dawson, thank you for making this clarification. I just read the article again and realized that you are correct. I posted the clarification. My understanding is that RT difference to the cue validity effect was significant but only during post-hoc and not in the overall model (from table 3). Thank you again for pointing my error. Nestor.

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