Study of Gaze Toward Humans in Photographs by Individuals with Autism, Down Syndrome, or Other Intellectual Disabilities (summary)



Visual Scene Displays (VSDs) might be a useful tool for AAC interventions for some people with complex communication needs (CCN), supporting the learning of language within a social setting and learning vocabulary meaning within a shared and familiar social experience with a communication partner, but research is needed into their optimum design.

There is evidence to suggest that the attention of people without disabilities is drawn to human figures within VSDs and the authors wanted to look into whether this is also true of individuals with various disabilities, even when the figures are not the most obvious element in the picture.

What did the authors do?

The authors investigated gaze fixation patterns of adolescents with autism, Down syndrome and other intellectual disabilities and children and adolescents without disabilities, to human figures in scenes where they are small or not the most obvious element. They also looked into differences between the responses of the various trial groups.

The participants with disabilities had significant language disabilities associated with their conditions.

Each participant was shown eight target photographs in which a human figure took up less than 20% of the total area and there was another element, e.g. a statue, fountain, Christmas tree, that would be expected to attract attention. Eye tracking technology was used to identify the areas of focus and the time spent fixated on various elements of the picture and the time taken to first fixate on the figure.

What did they find?

In all groups the participants fixated on the human figure in over 80% of the photographs. The groups with disabilities fixed on the photograph as a whole for significantly less time than those without disabilities but the fixation on the person was not significantly less as a proportion of the total fixation time.

In all groups the human figures attracted longer and more intense fixation than would be expected on size alone.


The sample size in each group was small so the findings cannot be widely generalised, nor were other variables such as visual acuity and communication functioning taken into account.

In this study the all of human figures were looking directly at the camera rather than being engaged in the event in the photograph which might have altered the engagement with elements of the VSD.

The authors also suggest that different types of images and static versus moving scenes should be investigated. They also note that fixation on an element does not guarantee that the viewer is attending to it; another area that requires further investigation.


The inclusion of people as an integral part of VSDs would seem to be important for all groups.

The groups with disabilities spent less time than those without focussing on the photograph in general. The reasons for this are not clear and require further investigation.

The use of eye tracking technology to obtain information that might otherwise be difficult to access was beneficial.

Things you may want to look into:

Designing AAC Systems for Children with Autism: Evidence from Eye Tracking Research

Eye Tracking as a Measure of Receptive Vocabulary in Children with Autism Spectrum Disorders

Hidden communicative competence: Case study evidence using eye-tracking and video analysis

The Potential Influence of Stimulus Overselectivity in AAC: Information from Eye Tracking and Behavioral Studies of Attention with Individuals with Intellectual Disabilities

Added to site March 2015