Atypical gaze patterns in autistic adults are heterogeneous across but reliable within individuals

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BACKGROUND: Across behavioral studies, autistic individuals show greater variability than typically developing individuals. However, it remains unknown to what extent this variability arises from heterogeneity across individuals, or from unreliability within individuals. Here, we focus on eye tracking, which provides rich dependent measures that have been used extensively in studies of autism. Autistic individuals have an atypical gaze onto both static visual images and dynamic videos that could be leveraged for diagnostic purposes if the above open question could be addressed. METHODS: We tested three competing hypotheses: (1) that gaze patterns of autistic individuals are less reliable or noisier than those of controls, (2) that atypical gaze patterns are individually reliable but heterogeneous across autistic individuals, or (3) that atypical gaze patterns are individually reliable and also homogeneous among autistic individuals. We collected desktop-based eye tracking data from two different full-length television sitcom episodes, at two independent sites (Caltech and Indiana University), in a total of over 150 adult participants (N = 48 autistic individuals with IQ in the normal range, 105 controls) and quantified gaze onto features of the videos using automated computer vision-based feature extraction. RESULTS: We found support for the second of these hypotheses. Autistic people and controls showed equivalently reliable gaze onto specific features of videos, such as faces, so much so that individuals could be identified significantly above chance using a fingerprinting approach from video epochs as short as 2 min. However, classification of participants into diagnostic groups based on their eye tracking data failed to produce clear group classifications, due to heterogeneity in the autistic group. LIMITATIONS: Three limitations are the relatively small sample size, assessment across only two videos (from the same television series), and the absence of other dependent measures (e.g., neuroimaging or genetics) that might have revealed individual-level variability that was not evident with eye tracking. Future studies should expand to larger samples across longer longitudinal epochs, an aim that is now becoming feasible with Internet- and phone-based eye tracking. CONCLUSIONS: These findings pave the way for the investigation of autism subtypes, and for elucidating the specific visual features that best discriminate gaze patterns-directions that will also combine with and inform neuroimaging and genetic studies of this complex disorder.

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Molecular autism





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