Effects of social complexity and gender on social and non-social attention in male and female autistic children: A comparison of four eye-tracking paradigms

Eye tracking has long been used to characterize differences in social attention between autistic and non-autistic children, but recent work has shown that these patterns may vary widely according to the biological sex of the participants and the social complexity and gender-typicality of the eye tracking stimuli (e.g., barbies vs. transformers). To better understand effects of sex, social complexity, and object gender-typicality on social and non-social gaze behavior in autism, we compared the visual attention patterns of 67 autistic (ASD) and non-autistic (NA) males (M) and females (F) (ASD M = 21; ASD F = 18; NA M = 14; NA F = 14) across four eye tracking paradigms varying in social complexity and object gender-typicality. We found consistency across paradigms in terms of overall attention and attention to social stimuli, but attention to objects varied when paradigms considered gender in their stimulus design. Children attended more to gendered objects, particularly when the gender-typicality of the object matched their assigned sex. These results demonstrate that visual social attention in autism is affected by interactions between a child’s biological sex, social scene complexity, and object gender-typicality and have broad implications for the design and interpretation of eye tracking studies.

Keywords: attention; eye movement; gender/female ASD; sex differences.



Putnam OC, Sasson N, Parish-Morris J, Harrop C