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article imageAutism research advanced by eye tracking technology: Interview Special

By Tim Sandle     May 15, 2018 in Science
Eye tracking measures human visual behavior in order to understand what drives human behavior. A recent eye tracking study of ASD adults led to a program that is helping ASD adolescents become better drivers.
New eye tracking studies indicate that children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have stronger cognitive abilities than non-ASD children depending on the task – they were quicker at search tasks like ‘Where’s Waldo?’ and watched videos more intensely. This gives hope, according to Dr. Katherine B. Martin, to educators on how best to connect and teach those with ASD.
As an example, highlighted by Dr. Martin, one researcher eye tracked children as they interacted with a robot. The children with ASD did better at verbal and imitation tasks with robots than with people. They were less anxious and followed directions, showing how robots can be used as teaching proxy.
To understand more about this research, Digital Journal spoke with Katherine B. Martin, who is a Senior Research Scientist at Tobii Pro.
Digital Journal: What proportion of people have autism in the U.S.?
Katherine B. Martin: The latest numbers from the U.S. Centers for Disease and Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that one in 59 U.S. children have autism. Past figures estimated one in 68 children. This rise in prevalence may be a direct result of an increased awareness of autism signs and behaviors, decreased stigma around receiving a diagnosis and an increase in services available.
DJ: How effective is care and treatment?
Martin: I am not a clinical psychologist, and therefore am not the best person to answer this question. With that in mind, research shows that early intervention can improve the functioning and developmental trajectories of infants and children with autism. Improvements in language, behavioral skills, reduction in symptom severity, and increases in intelligence quotients (IQs) have been well documented.
It is because of this why so much investment and focus has been placed in the research tools for identifying the early biomarkers and signs of autism spectrum disorder (ASD). The earlier we are able to treat an individual with ASD, the better trajectory we can set them on. The key to early diagnosis is knowing what to look for and providing comprehensive insights to educate the larger community on those signs
DJ: What are the benefits of eye tracking technology?
Martin: Eye tracking has long been used as a methodology to study the development of ASD. It is a tool that measures visual behavior, such as where a person looks, how long they look, and when they looked. Eye tracking allows researchers to infer the cognitive processes without the participant having to answer questions verbally. When it comes to ASD research, eye tracking studies have been conducted with infants and children who are preverbal or nonverbal. Eye tracking provides the opportunity for young children and those with neurological impairments, who are unable to explain their thought processes, to participate in studies.
DJ: Are there any other benefits of eye tracking in ASD research?
Martin: It provides unbiased, objective and quantifiable data. In ASD research, objective, quantifiable data is essential to the study of the development of ASD and differences in visual behaviors between individuals with and without ASD. Researchers need fast, reliable, accurate data to capture the visual behavior of individuals with ASD.
It allows for natural behavior – eye trackers are unobtrusive and allow tasks to be carried out as normal Individuals with ASD are often sensitive to stimulation and environmental changes of any kind. The unobtrusiveness of eye tracking allows researchers to objectively capture visual behavior without overstimulating the sensory system of the participant.
DJ: What can this technology reveal?
Martin: Eye tracking has contributed to considerable advancements in the field of ASD research. Recent eye tracking studies have revealed strengths of individuals with ASD that can be leveraged to better inform learning and intervention strategies. Recent eye tracking studies show that toddlers with ASD were quicker at search tasks like Where’s Waldo than toddlers without ASD.
This gives hope that we can leverage the strengths of individuals with ASD to better tailor intervention needs for individuals with ASD. For example, Dr. Ann Mastergeorge at Texas Tech University has studied children with ASD as they interact with a robot using eye tracking. The children with ASD did better at verbal and imitation tasks with robots than with people. They were less anxious and followed directions, showing how robots can be used as teaching proxy.
Another recent eye tracking study revealed that adolescents with ASD perform better than adolescents without ASD during a driving task involving rule following. This knowledge formed the foundation of a new intervention program to help adolescents with ASD become better drivers.
DJ: How was the technology developed?
Martin: Tobii Pro has provided researchers and businesses with eye tracking tools since 2001. We work with 2,000 academic institutions, including all the world’s 50 top-rated universities applying eye tracking technology to break new ground in the study of autism, but also the reading comprehension of children, and concussion prevention. We have a dedicated R&D team who developed our hardware and software solutions based on extensive research, development and testing.
Through the years, the technology has become more powerful and flexible. Tobii Pro Spectrum is Tobii Pro’s newest eye tracker which can collect gaze data at up to 1200 hertz (Hz) while still accommodating natural head movements – an unmatched capability in eye tracking for research. Tobii Pro Lab is the software platform by which researchers can conducting eye tracking studies. The platform makes it easy for researchers to combine eye tracking data with other biometric data streams such as EEG (brain activity), GSR (sweat production) or ECG (heart activity) for a more comprehensive understanding of human behavior.
DJ: How was it tested out?
Martin: Tobii Pro does extensive hardware testing throughout the product development cycle. We publish white papers online that provide specific details about our testing, population and conditions as well as accuracy and precision results. These can be requested through the website for each hardware product that we produce.
DJ: Are there published studies?
Martin: In 2002, the first eye tracking study of individuals with autism was published. It found that those with autism spent less time looking at the nose and eyes than individuals without autism. Since then, a quick google scholar search reveals roughly 18,000 articles have been published on eye tracking and autism.
These articles range from cognitive performance and early biomarkers of ASD, to social interaction deficits. Dr. Ann Mastergeorge, a Professor of Human Development and Family Studies at Texas Tech University, has used eye tracking as “a window into…the visual system” to document the behavioral patterns of children engaging with social stimuli before and after an intervention program. Dr. Mastergeorge uses eye tracking to gather “scientific hard data that actually visually shows where children are looking.” She added, “it is a very profound finding that we have in our intervention and that is one way we can actually display the differences in pre- and post-intervention.”
DJ: Can you provide some case studies?
Martin: There are two on our website. One is with Uppsala university and the other is with Osaka university.
And here is a blog post on three researchers we interviewed that have identified the hidden strengths of those with ASD that I mentioned before.: https://www.tobiipro.com/blog/eye-tracking-reveals-strengths-of-people-with-autism/)
DJ: What has the reaction of the medical profession been like?
Martin: The reaction has been extremely positive as the technology has been adopted as a valid tool for scientific query, particularly in the ASD field. It has been incorporated into many other research studies and we expect this trend to continue to increase, especially as eye tracking becomes intuitive to use. New scientific discoveries through eye tracking is happening every day and we look forward to seeing what researchers do next.
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