New Study Shows What Talking About Emotion Can Be Like for Kids With Autism


University of Vermont researchers conducted a study of how children with autism respond during different kinds of conversations, and the results may help speech therapists interact with kids on the spectrum. The study, which claims to be the first of its kind, used eye-tracking technology to show how many children on the spectrum will fixate on a speaker’s mouth, rather than their eyes, when a conversation turns emotional.

The study was published in “Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders,” and it used the Mirametrix S2 Eye Tracker system, which follows infrared light after it bounces off the retinas. The Mirametrix system combined with Skype helped researchers track the visual attention of neurotypical participants and compare them to participants on the spectrum. Participants were between the ages of 6 and 12, and they had conversations with adults about mundane topics and then topics focused more on feelings.

Tiffany Hutchins is the assistant professor of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Vermont, and the lead author behind the study.

“What you talk about really matters for children with ASD,” Hutchins wrote in the study, according to an article on the UVM website. “You just change a few words by talking about what people do versus how they feel and you can have a profound impact on where eyes go for information.”

“Talking about emotions is really hard and very draining for children with ASD,” Hutchins continued. “It’s like driving in a snowstorm. Normally, when you drive around in good weather on a familiar route, you go on automatic pilot and sometimes don’t even remember how you got somewhere. But for a child with ASD, having a conversation, especially one about emotions, is more like driving in a snowstorm. In that situation, you are totally focused, every move is tense and effortful, and your executive function drains away. In fact, we found that decreased working memory correlated with decreased eye fixations.”

Hutchins and her co-author Ashley Brien only found two other studies that used eye tracking to examine social attention during conversations, but none with autism. “We were amazed that no one had done this yet,” Hutchins wrote in the study.

Hutchins told The Mighty previous research examined how children observed videos of people or how they looked at photographs of people and social scenes. “We were able to get at what children did during actual conversations,” she said in an email.

Brien was a graduate student at the time of the study, and she is now a speech pathologist. Both she and Hutchins believe their findings should be taken into consideration by speech therapists and other special education teachers.

“We are not particularly favorable to the insistence of some professionals that children with ASD be compelled to initiate and maintain and sustain eye contact during conversation,” Hutchins added in her email to The Mighty. “We think there is a potential for negative knock-on effects particularly with regard to executive function. Long story short, we want to be very wary about that recommendation…What is the child really getting out of that? Is it helping? Could it be hurting?”

h/t Medical Xpress

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