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Gaze behavior of children with pervasive developmental disorder toward human faces: a fixation time study

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Background: The abnormal gaze behavior of autistic children toward human faces, as observed in daily-life situations, are investigated in two fixation time studies. It has been argued that faces are a special kind of stimuli for normal individuals and that this might not be the case for autistic children. Methods: A group of high-functioning autistic children (including a group of sub-threshold PDD-NOS children) was compared with a group of normal children, with respect to their fixation behavior for photographs of human faces. Using an infrared eye-tracking device, fixation times for the whole face and for the facial elements of faces were compared between the two groups. The first study dealt with faces having an emotional expression. The second study dealt with neutral faces presented either upright or upside-down. Results: Results of the two studies showed that autistic children have the same fixation behavior as normal children for upright faces, with or without an emotional expression. Furthermore, results of the second study showed that normal children spent less time looking at upside-down faces, but that the fixation times of autistic children were not influenced by the orientation of the faces. Conclusions: These results plead against the notion that the abnormal gaze behavior in everyday life is due to the presence of facial stimuli per se. Furthermore, the absence of a face orientation effect in autistic children might be a reflection of a lack of holistic processing of human faces in autism.
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Keywords: Autistic disorder; eye movements; face perception; gaze behavior; pervasive developmental disorder

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Utrecht Medical Center, The Netherlands, 2: University of Utrecht, The Netherlands

Publication date: July 1, 2002

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