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Gaze toward Social Interactions in Photographs by Individuals with Autism: Implications for AAC design

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Visual Scene Displays (VSDs) are a form of display organization that involves images – often photographs – as the means to present concepts for AAC users. VSDs provide semantic support by embedding concepts within a familiar and readily-recognized context, and are thus often used with young or beginning communicators. Critical elements of VSDs include people engaged in social activities.
Autism is characterized in part by the presence of unusual behavior during social interactions, including reduced eye contact and social engagement. Given that VSDs deliberately depict images of people, engaged in social interactions, it is possible that VSDs containing humans might provoke gaze avoidance in individuals with autism.
We used eye-tracking technology to evaluate gaze of individuals with and without autism towards photographs containing humans who were either interacting or not interacting. Our preliminary study showed that individuals with autism tended to view human figures less than typically developing controls regardless of whether humans were interacting or not. However, when sizes of humans were considered, both groups viewed non-interacting humans significantly more than the interacting humans.
A second study is underway in which factors from the first study were carefully controlled (e.g., size and number of people in the photographs). This study has also added individuals with Down syndrome, to evaluate whether atypical gaze behaviors are specific to autism. If updated data suggest aberrant gaze toward interacting humans, clinicians and manufacturers creating photograph-based AAC displays should consider the degree of social demands in photographs based on the concerns about gaze avoidance.


Jiali Liang    
The Pennsylvania State University
United States

Krista Wilkinson    
The Pennsylvania State University
United States


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