Scientific article
Open access

Emotional vs. Neutral Face Exploration and Habituation: An Eye-Tracking Study of Preschoolers With Autism Spectrum Disorders

Published inFrontiers in psychiatry, vol. 11, 568997
Publication date2021-01-13
First online date2021-01-13

Diminished orienting to social stimuli, and particularly to faces, is a core feature of autism spectrum disorders (ASDs). Impaired face processing has been linked to atypical attention processes that trigger a cascade of pathological development contributing to impaired social communication. The aim of the present study is to explore the processing of emotional and neutral faces using an eye-tracking paradigm (the emotional faces task) with a group of 24 children with ASD aged 6 and under and a group of 22 age-matched typically developing (TD) children. We also measure habituation to faces in both groups based on the presentation of repeated facial expressions. Specifically, the task consists of 32 pairs of faces, a neutral face and an emotional face from the same identity, shown side by side on the screen. We observe differential exploration of emotional faces in preschoolers with ASD compared with TD. Participants with ASD make fewer fixations to emotional faces than their TD peers, and the duration of their first fixation on emotional faces is equivalent to their first fixation on neutral faces. These results suggest that emotional faces may be less interesting for children with ASD. We also observe a habituation process to neutral faces in both children with ASD and TD, who looked less at neutral faces during the last quarter of the task compared with the first quarter. By contrast, TD children show increased interest in emotional faces throughout the task, looking slightly more at emotional faces during the last quarter of the task than during the first quarter. Children with ASD demonstrate neither habituation nor increased interest in the changing emotional expressions over the course of the task, looking at the stimuli for equivalent time throughout the task. A lack of increased interest in emotional faces may suggest a lack of sensitivity to changes in expression in young children with ASD.

  • ASD
  • Emotional faces
  • Eye-tracking
  • Face exploration
  • Habituation
  • Preschoolers
Citation (ISO format)
BOCHET, Aurélie et al. Emotional vs. Neutral Face Exploration and Habituation: An Eye-Tracking Study of Preschoolers With Autism Spectrum Disorders. In: Frontiers in psychiatry, 2021, vol. 11, p. 568997. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2020.568997
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Article (Published version)
ISSN of the journal1664-0640

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