Sociocommunicative difficulties, including abnormalities in eye contact, are core diagnostic features of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). Many studies have used eye tracking to measure reduced attention to faces in autistic people; however, most of this work has not taken advantage of eye-tracking temporal resolution to examine temporal profiles of attention.
We used growth curve analysis to model attention to static social scenes as a function of time in a large (N = 650) sample of autistic participants and neurotypical participants across a wide age range (6–30 years).
The model yielded distinct temporal profiles of attention to faces in the groups. Initially, both groups showed a relatively high probability of attending to faces, followed by decline after several seconds. The neurotypical participants, however, were significantly more likely to return their attention to faces in the latter part of each 20-second trial, with increasing probability with age. In contrast, the probability of returning to the face in the autistic participants remained low across development. In participants with ASD, more atypical profiles of attention were associated with lower Vineland Adaptive Behavior Scales communication scores and a higher curvature in one data-driven cluster correlated with symptom severity.
These findings show that social attention not only is reduced in ASD, but also differs in its temporal dynamics. The neurotypical participants became more sophisticated in how they deployed their social attention across age, a pattern that was significantly reduced in the participants with ASD, possibly reflecting delayed acquisition of social expertise.
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