Study Reveals How Autistic Children Feel when Talking about Emotions


Researchers from the University of Vermont studied how autistic children (between the ages of 6 and 12) respond to conversations, especially around the ones that involve emotional exchange. The results thus obtained are thought to be of immense help to speech therapists, who need to interact with kids on the Autism spectrum on a regular basis.

This study is being claimed to be the first of its kind and used eye-tracking technology. It showed how many children on the spectrum shall fix gaze on the speaker’s mouth instead of on their eyes, when a conversation turns emotional. It was published in Research in Autism Spectrum Disorders, the study used the Mirametrix S2 Eye Tracker system.

Autistic Children feeling about emotions

There were only two other studies that used eye tracking to examine social attention of children during conversations, but none dealt with autism. These research just examined how children observed videos of people or how they looked at photographs of people in social situations.

About Mirametrix S2 Eye Tracker system and its use

The system works on the principles of infrared light bouncing off the retinas. The Mirametrix system combines Skype into the package to help researchers track the visual attention of neuro-typical participants for comparing them to participants with autism. The conversations with adults started with mundane topics and then shifted to focused more on feelings.

What the Research Team had to Say

Tiffany Hutchins, Lead author behind the study; assistant professor of Communication Sciences and Disorders, University of Vermont explains, “Talking about emotions can be quite hard and very draining for children with Autism and what you are talking about really matters to them. Just by changing a few words from talking about what people do to how they feel  can have a profound effect on where the eyes go for information.”

It is very much like driving in a snowstorm. Normally, when you are driving around in good weather conditions and on a familiar route, you go on auto-pilot mode and sometimes don’t even recollect how you got there. But for a child with Autism Spectrum Disorder, engaging in a conversation that revolves around emotions, is more like driving in a snowstorm. In these situations, they try to be very focused, each move being tense and effortful, and your executive function drifts away. In fact, we found that a decreased working memory is often correlated with decreased eye fixating functions.

Ashley Brien, Speech pathologist and co-author of the study comments, “We were amazed when we learnt that no one had done a similar study yet. We were able to interpret and document what children did during those actual conversations. We do not particularly support the insistence of some professionals that children with Autism be coerced to initiate, maintain and (most importantly) sustain eye contact during conversations. Rather, we think there is a potential for significant negative knock-on effects, particularly when it comes to executive function. The point that I am trying to make is that we intend to be quite wary about that recommendation. What value is the child actually getting out of this whole exercise?  Who is it actually helping? On the contrary, could it be counter-productive?”

Both the lead and the co-author believe their findings should be taken into consideration by speech therapists and other special education teachers to take the treatment of autism towards a new direction.

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