Reduced Social Attention: Hallmark of Autism or a Result of Sensory Overload?

October 17, 2022

New Study Uses Immersive Virtual Reality and Eyetracking Technology to Find Out

Researchers from Dartmouth recently set out to investigate why individuals with autism often exhibit reduced social attention. The team searched for a better explanation for autism-related social challenges than simply being a core feature or a hallmark of autism. Instead, these researchers theorized that reduced social attention could be tied to sensory overloads or perceptual difficulties. The authors used a head-mounted virtual reality (VR) display with in-headset eye-tracking on test subjects to explore their hypothesis. In total, forty participants (19 autism spectrum conditions [ASC]; 21 typically developed [TD]) were exposed to 18 immersive, real-world scenes in three conditions that varied in perceptual load. Every scene was introduced to the participants three times, once in each of the three perceptual load conditions. The first condition was a static,  360° photosphere. The second condition was a dynamic videosphere where motion cues were introduced. The final condition was a multisensory videosphere where audio information was also introduced. For each trial, participants were instructed to look around the scene as one would do in real life. After analyzing the eye-tracking data from each scene, the researchers discovered differences in social attention between the ASC and TD groups. This variability appeared to be modulated by perceptual load condition. Results showed that ASC participants displayed reduced social attention relative to TD subjects in higher perceptual load conditions (dynamic and multisensory). However, ASC participants social attention mirrored the TD social attention in the static load condition. The authors believe these findings support their original hypothesis. They demonstrated that reduced social attention is not merely a core feature for individuals with autism but that the behavior has a basis rooted in increased perceptual loads across different conditions. 

Original Study

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