Initial eye gaze to faces and its functional consequence on face identification abilities in autism spectrum disorder

Background: Autism spectrum disorder (ASD) is a neurodevelopmental disorder defined and diagnosed by core deficits in social communication and the presence of restricted and repetitive behaviors. Research on face processing suggests deficits in this domain in ASD but includes many mixed findings regarding the nature and extent of these differences. The first eye movement to a face has been shown to be highly informative and sufficient to achieve high performance in face identification in neurotypical adults. The current study focused on this critical moment shown to be essential in the process of face identification.

Methods: We applied an established eye-tracking and face identification paradigm to comprehensively characterize the initial eye movement to a face and test its functional consequence on face identification performance in adolescents with and without ASD (n = 21 per group), and in neurotypical adults. Specifically, we presented a series of faces and measured the landing location of the first saccade to each face, while simultaneously measuring their face identification abilities. Then, individuals were guided to look at specific locations on the face, and we measured how face identification performance varied as a function of that location. Adolescent participants also completed a more traditional measure of face identification which allowed us to more fully characterize face identification abilities in ASD.

Results: Our results indicate that the location of the initial look to faces and face identification performance for briefly presented faces are intact in ASD, ruling out the possibility that deficits in face perception, at least in adolescents with ASD, begin with the initial eye movement to the face. However, individuals with ASD showed impairments on the more traditional measure of face identification.

Conclusion: Together, the observed dissociation between initial, rapid face perception processes, and other measures of face perception offers new insights and hypotheses related to the timing and perceptual complexity of face processing and how these specific aspects of face identification may be disrupted in ASD.

Keywords: Autism spectrum disorder; Eye gaze; Face identification.