Face Processing of Animal and Human Static Stimuli by Children with Autism Spectrum Disorder: A Pilot Study

Marine Grandgeorge1,2, Céline Degrez2, Zarrin Alavi3, & Eric Lemonnier2,4
1Université de Rennes 1, UMR CNRS 6552 -Laboratoire Ethologie Animale et Humaine-EthoS, 2Child Psychiatry Service – Centre de Ressources Autisme, 3INSERM, & 4Centre Expert Autisme Limousin

Animals are part of humans’ social environment and present numerous benefits. Each partner in a human-animal interaction uses signals emitted by the other (e.g. postures, gestures or gaze directions) to collect information to adjust their behaviour. Face processing impairment is associated with social interaction impairment observed in autism spectrum disorders (ASD). For example children with ASD explore human eyes visually less than do neurotypical (NT) children. Given the strong bonding between ASD children and animals, we hypothesized that animal face processing by ASD is normal. Thus, our study compared ASD (n=12) and NT (n=18) childrens’ patterns of fixation of animal (horse, dog, and cat) and human faces in a passive viewing task using an eye tracking technique. Our results, using animal pictures, confirmed that the eyes were the part of the face looked at the longest by NT children and, to a lesser extent, by ASD children, but only NT children looked at the eyes of human pictures longer than other parts. Familiarity with animals seemed to modulate the exploration of animal, especially cat faces. Implications for understanding social interaction impairment related to ASD are discussed.

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