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Cognition and behavior: View of new scene same in autism, controls

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Jessica Wright
14 January 2011

Front and center: People with autism generally look at the same dominant features of an image as controls do, but take longer to observe people’s heads or faces.

Teenagers with autism look at faces in pictures a little later than controls do, even when the faces are the most striking part of the image, according to a study published in January in Neuropsychologia. They are as likely as healthy controls to look at other prominent aspects of an image, however.

When most people look at a scene, they tend to glance initially at the most visually salient features — those that, based on color or size, stand out the most. Individuals with autism generally avoid looking at faces and observe the background of a scene instead of socially relevant foreground activity.

When looking at pictures, teenagers with autism are just as likely as healthy controls to look at visually salient objects in their first few glances, researchers found. When the most prominent feature is a face, however, control groups fixate on these regions by the second glance, compared with those who have autism, who observe these features in the third glance, on average.

The results suggest, unexpectedly, that people with autism pay the same initial attention to a scene as controls do. However, their well-described avoidance of faces affects how quickly they do so when that feature contains socially relevant information.

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