Last week I discussed a study showing that kids with low functioning autism identify noses better when these are presented upside down than when presented upright. In the context of that study, the authors suggested that these kids have an aversion to examining eyes directly and tend to focus on parts of the face away from the eyes.

This week a group of researchers from Yale University published a study on Nature that adds another piece to this puzzle. The authors presented a Pat-a-cake animation in which a character is clapping his hands. However, the video was presented using motion-capture, a technique that uses light dots to represent the joints of the body. The video was presented upside down in one side of the screen and upside up in the other side. Then the authors tracked the eye movements of children with autism, children with developmental delays, and typically developing children.

Here is a sample of one of the videos used:


Surprisingly, the children with autism concentrated on the motion-sound sync. That is, they focused on the hands clapping instead of other social aspects of the video. On the other hand, children with developmental delays, as well as typically developing children, seemed to focus on biological motion and socially relevant stimuli. Also, consistent with the previous study about eyes aversion I discussed, the kids with autism didn’t show a preference for the upright image – their eyes moved back and forth from the two sides of the screen. Instead, the typically developing kids preferred to look at the upright image. However, this pattern was observed only during videos that did not present the motion-sound.

In sum, this study show that children with autism seem to prefer motion-sound synchronicity, and this may explain why kids with autism prefer to look at the mouth area of the face instead of the eyes.

The article: Klin, A., Lin, D., Gorrindo, P., Ramsay, G., & Jones, W. (2009). Two-year-olds with autism orient to non-social contingencies rather than biological motion Nature DOI: 10.1038/nature07868

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2 Responses to Eyes aversion reconsidered: Kids with autism may prefer Lip-Sync.

  1. This is incorrect. In the specific video shown here (in the study, there were several videos), autistic children did show a preference for upright vs inverted images. This is the foundation for the main finding of the study (see Figure 2), and resulted in additional investigation.

    Also, this study did not involve measuring number and length of visual fixations to the “face” area of the stimuli (which did not have faces). No data were provided in this respect, so Dr Lopez-Durand’s conclusion that “children with autism ignored the face” is his own and does not arise from the study.

  2. Thank you for your comment Michelle. You are correct. My use of the word “ignore” was wrong. I should have said that children with autism showed a preference for motion-sound synchronicity while the typically developing children did not show such a pattern, and instead showed a preference for socially relevant cues.

    From the original study: “The results fromthis post hoc quantification ofAVS and preferential
    viewing indicated that the viewing patterns of toddlers with autism—randomrelative to social content—showed instead a marked reliance
    on AVS. This one measure accounted for 90% of the autism group’s variance in preferential viewing. In contrast, the looking patterns of
    typically developing and of developmentally delayed, non-autistic children showed no relationship with the levels of AVS. The control
    children gave preferential attention to biological motion, disregarding AVS in favour of more socially relevant signals”

    In regards to the video, I did also confused the results of the non-avs trials with the AVS trials. In the initial trials children with autism did not show a preference for the upright video, while typically developing children did. From the study:

    “Results are plotted in Fig. 1e–g.When viewing point-light displays of human biological motion, two-year-olds with autism spectrum disorders are random in their looking patterns: 0.7%on the upright figure versus 49.3% on the inverted (Fig. 1e). In contrast, both control groups demonstrated significant preferential attention to the upright animations: 62.7% upright for the typically developing group, and 58.9% upright for the developmentally delayed group(Fig. 1f, g).”

    Yet, the autism group did show a preference for the upright video when including the clapping motion.

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