Dr. Cameron Jeter
Dr. Cameron Jeter

While individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) may find social interactions challenging, promising research by Dr. Anne Sereno, former professor of neuroscience in the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy, and Megan Kirchgessner, former visiting student, shows that a series of tablet-based tasks and games may be suitable methods of early intervention in children with ASD.

Dr. Cameron Jeter, assistant professor at the School of Dentistry and associate member of M.D. Anderson UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences, who worked with the Sereno Lab as a former student on multiple projects investigating the neurodevelopment of children, said the study showed that tablet-based games that train socially relevant and context-dependent orienting “might teach individuals to use social information to orient their attention in a more intentional, goal-directed manner.” For many years, researchers have used eye trackers to know where and when people are looking at certain points.

“The eyes, in a sense, are the window into the brain,” Jeter said. “You get a sense of what people are thinking about by following what objects they are looking at.”

Traditional eye trackers used in similar research come with several caveats, Jeter said. Such devices can be large and not particularly portable and require the subject to rest their head against a forehead bar. The use of a tablet offers a level of comfort and flexibility both for researchers and their subjects and also does not require patients to live near major medical centers or large cities.

The study aimed to establish the tablet as a means for measuring the reflexive and voluntary social attentional processes and to also test the belief that children with ASD have reflexive orienting intact but the voluntary process is impaired. The research used a group of high-functioning ASD subjects with average IQ scores and a control group of typically-developing subjects matched on age.

Participants in the study began by touching a central spot, or fixation, on the tablet screen. Following a delay, a face appeared with its eyes looking to the left or right, followed by a variable delay and a solid white square either to the left or right. The subjects were instructed to touch this square target as quickly as possible, and the participants’ responses were completed under two conditions – in the first 80 trials, the direction of the gaze would not predict the location of the square, and the remaining 40 congruent (“ProGaze”) trials and 40 incongruent (“AntiGaze”) trials were sorted so that the gaze would always predict the square’s location.

During the first trials, Jeter said patients would realize it would be to their advantage to look where the eyes were pointing, as that would indicate where the square would appear. However, in cases when the same face is looking opposite from where the square would appear, challenges would arise.

“In this case, patients with ASD have more trouble interpreting what her gaze meant than a healthy individual,” Jeter said. “[They] found that children with ASD are not able to use eye gaze in a voluntary, context-dependent way, whereas they could use it in a reflexive, automatic way.”

Jeter said the study could be used to develop tablet-based games as a method of social-orienting by potentially teaching patients to use social information to orient their attention in a more goal-directed manner.

The original research for this article was published in Frontiers in Neuroscience, “Intact Reflexive but Deficient Voluntary Social Orienting in Autism Spectrum Disorder” Kirchgessner, Chuang, Patel, Sereno, 2015; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4665260/