Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor and a high-tech eye-tracking device
developed for the military, researchers at Yale ran experiments that came closer
than anything yet to offering a look at the world as seen through the eyes of
people with autism.
In one experiment, described in the current issue of The American Journal of
Psychiatry, the researchers compared the eye movements of a highly intelligent
autistic adult and a control subject of the same age, sex and I.Q. as they
watched the relentless emotional conflicts of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"
What the experiment showed was that the two subjects were seeing the movie in
starkly different ways. When Mr. Burton and Ms. Taylor, playing an alcoholic
professor and his shrewish wife, confronted each other face to face, the gaze of
the nonautistic adult swung intently between their eyes, while the autistic
subjects looked back and forth, as well but focused on the actors' mouths.
When Ms. Taylor flirted with George Segal, playing a young professor, as her
husband lurked in the background, the gaze of the nonautistic adult described a
triangle as he followed the expressions of all three. The autistic man never
looked at Mr. Burton or anyone's eyes.
Dr. Ami Klin, a psychologist at the Yale Child Study Center who was the lead
author of the study, said his team chose the movie because it presented complex
social situations that involved just four characters and had few distracting
To track eye movements, the researchers used a device made by Iscan of
Burlington, Mass., said Warren Jones, a research associate who worked on the
technical end of the experiment. He said eye-tracking technology had originally
been developed largely with military funds to create a look-and-load system for
The system in the Yale experiment looked like a baseball cap with two cameras
attached. One camera, at cheek level, faces forward and records the field of
view. An infrared camera on the bill points down to a piece of glass that hangs
in front of the eyes and acts as a mirror, letting the cameras capture eye
position changes without blocking the subject's view.
Dr. Klin said the device offered a tool to deal with one of the most
frustrating research problems in studying autism, a little-understood brain
disorder whose diagnosis has become increasingly common. Although autism affects
a broad range of skills, the Yale researchers consider its central feature to be
"a profound social disability," in Dr. Klin's words.
But when social tasks are broken down into discrete components suitable for
research, autistic children can perform far better than in the hurly-burly of
real social challenges like recess, he said.
The eye-tracking device allows researchers "to see what they see" while
engaged in a more natural task, said Dr. Klin. "But we're less interested in
what they understood than in how they searched for meaning," he said.
What the researchers saw in the "Virginia Woolf" study and in a larger
follow-up trial that autistic people tend to look at mouths or extraneous
objects when nonautistic people look at eyes fits in with other classic signs
of autism like limited eye contact and difficulty in remembering faces.
Dr. Klin called it especially intriguing because normally developing infants
learn, often as early as 3 months, to look at people's eyes instead of their
mouths when searching for information about feelings and intentions.
Although autism is thought to affect brain development even before birth, in
most children it is not diagnosed until age 3 or 4 or even later, when symptoms
like language deficiencies or repetitive behaviors become evident. The Yale
group has begun experiments to see whether eye-tracking tests could lead to
earlier diagnoses because the best results come from intensive treatments that
begin as soon as possible.
Dr. Klin said eye-tracking fitted into a developing theory about the delay in
symptoms. The problem is not just abnormal brain structure, but a stunting of
brain development because of the limited social input that comes from a focus on
objects rather than people.
"We are," he said, "the sum of all our experiences."
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