Social attention, which hasappeared with increasing traction due to heighted interest in several differentperspectives. Social attention is defined as the process by which observersselect and encode aspects of other people (Frank et al., 2011).
It is oftenused in detecting autism during the early stage, being among the coredeficiencies of autism (Charman, 2003; Sigman et al., 2004). The term “social attention” can be aperplex construct, as often, it can refer to a cluster of behaviours that sharethe common goal of communicating with another person. Other times, it can referitself to Smith andUlvund (2003) describe social attention as the “hallmark of the humancondition”, and the ability to coordinate attention to events andobjects with attention to others. Therefore, suggesting that social attentionin terms of social behaviour is the capability to attend simultaneously to ashared object and a person, for example, in its most simple level, eye gazealternation and gesturing (Meindl and Cannella-Malone, 2011). Autism on the other hand, isthe other area of focus alongside with social attention.
Autism spectrumdisorders (ASD) are prevalent developmental disorders which affectsapproximately one in every 150 children (CDC, 2007). Children of 36 months oldand younger showing pronounced deficits in communication, social interaction andbehavioural domains (American PsychiatricAssociation, 2013) are more often than usual signs of autism. Thiscomplex disorder is known to share similarities with Pervasive DevelopmentalDisorder, Not Otherwise Specified (PDD-NOS), Asperger’ssyndrome, and others. Although the aetiology of this disorder is unknown,autism involves basic deficiencies such as in the areas of central logicality;ability to procure what another person might be thinking just by observingtheir behaviour, termed “theory of mind”. The lack of theory of mindwas proposed as a core of autism by Baron-Cohen et al (1985) while Frith(1989), came up with the idea that weak central coherence was thought by someto be the cause of central disturbance in autism.
Among other symptoms, persons with autismfrequently experience disturbances of different aspects of attention.Attentional difference in the autistics as compared to normal controls are notthat simple. This paper will review the literature on the differences in socialattention between people with autism and those without while citing somerelevant empirical evidences. In relationto social attention, people with ASD seem to have their aberrant eye gazemechanisms implicated. Past studies focused on the eye movements in childrenwith ASD revealed that there is a significant decrease in eye gaze duration andabsence of specific eye gaze fixation to the eyes and/or mouth when comparingto the controls (Papagiannopoulouet al., 2014). There were many studies that employed a range ofexperimental designs. To name a few, static photographs and pictures, dynamicaudio-visual stimuli and free-viewing tasks were among the experimental designsused.
The many studies that will be being brought up will be focusing onstudies using controls on eye-tracking. Eye-tracking technology has made research in socialattention easier and findings from experimental studies corresponds withmeasures of social impairment and with autism symptom severity. All fourstudies found that there was a declined in attention to social stimuli and asignificant increase in attention to non-social stimuli related to behaviouralmeasures of autism (Klin, Jones et al., 2002, Riby and Hancock, 2009b, Wilson,Brock, and Palermo, 2010 and Shic et al.
, 2011). The eye-tracking study thatwas carried out by Klin et al. (2002) was one of the first studies to showdeficiencies in social attention in individuals with ASD. The study conductedby Klin et al. (2002) exhibited the significant time spent on attending topeople and to the background and irrelevant objects in the movie scene wherethey were asked to watch.
Riby and Hancock (2009b), Wilson, Brock, and Palermo(2010) and Shic et al. (2011) all showed indistinguishable results where ASDindividuals spend proportionally more time looking at background objects thanon attending to people. As much as the studies were very much alike in terms ofthe patterns of results, they did differ significantly in nature of stimulus.
Motionpresented in each study were either static (Riby and Hancock, 2009b and Wilsonet al., 2010) or dynamic (Shic et al., 2011 and Klin et al., 2002). Whetherparticipants were matched by their verbal intelligence quotient (IQ) ornon-verbal IQ were present in the four studies.
However, what it was found toshare some similarities among these studies were that they contained low socialcontent. The low social content might thus be the reason why there was nosignificant difference in attention to social stimuli as what they might havereacted otherwise if social content was on the high side. In contrary to the studiesexhibiting significant differences in social attention between individuals withand without ASD, van der Geest, Kumner, Verbaten et al. (2002) provedotherwise.
This group of researchers conducted a study that involved twostudies with human faces to observe gaze behaviour and gaze fixation times. Thefirst study comprised faces with emotional expressions while the other studycomprised faces with neutral expressions in different orientations. Both studiesshowed same fixation duration. Kemner et al. (2007), Parish-Morris et al.(2013) and Kuhn et al.
(2010) found no significant differences in the amount ofattention ASD and non-ASD people would be directed towards faces against objects.Kumner et al. (2007) discovered that children, whether those with ASD or not,spend similar amounts of time fixating on face drawings among the otherdistractors.
Kuhn et al. (2010), hypothesized that ASD individuals are lesssusceptible to a magic trick because of their declined sensitivity to socialcues. However, it proved that ASD individuals were in fact more susceptiblethan those without ASD and showed no significant differences in the amount oftime the two groups spent fixated on the magician’s face and eyes. Parish-Morriset al. (2013) on the other hand presented short movies of faces and objects.
Giventhese mixed results presented, the variety of stimuli and experimentalprocedures of the studies might be components that affect the difference insocial attention between the two groups.