Fascinating images reveal how people with autism see the world

Autism elephantdoi:10.1016/j.neuron.2015.09.042Eye-tracking patterns show how people on the autism spectrum (left) view the world differently.

People with autism see the world differently.

They typically don’t look at faces as closely; they can be more easily overwhelmed by too many stimuli; and they may fixate intensely on one thing at a time.

Previous research found these and other differences, but a new study helps you see the world how many people with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) might.

The study, published in October in the journal Neuron, tracked 39 participants’ eyes as they looked at 700 different images. Half of the participants had been officially diagnosed with ASD, and the other half were “neurotypical,” meaning they didn’t meet enough diagnostic criteria to be considered autistic.

“Among other findings, our work shows that the story is not as simple as saying ‘people with ASD don’t look normally at faces.’ They don’t look at most things in a typical way,” study co-author Ralph Adolphs, a neuroscientist at CalTech, said in a press release.

These images show what participants’ eyes gravitated toward, with the reddish areas showing the most looked-at spots. In every image, the participants with autism are on the left and the neurotypical participants are on the right.

In the study, people with autism tended to focus on the center of images, even when other objects were in a photo.

People with autism also looked at the edges and patterns in the images rather than faces.

Participants only viewed each image for three seconds, so it captured their first instincts.

People with autism tended not to follow the object of people's gazes in the photos, while neurotypical participants did.

You can see how the changes in attention between neurotypical participants and those with autism differ.

About one in 68 children in the US have autism -- a rate that's higher today than in the past due to new diagnostic criteria and a surge in awareness.

While doctors are getting better at diagnosing children with the disorder, it's still pretty difficult to do.

Researchers are looking at ways to diagnose autism earlier, so interventions can begin sooner rather than later. Eye-tracking could help.

The BabySibs project, for example, is using eye-tracking software to find diagnosable differences between infants with autism and those who are neurotypical.

BabySibs researchers have found that babies with autism prefer to look at scrambled faces rather than normal pictures of faces.

Infants with autism actually prefer to listen to computer-generated sounds rather than speech, too, the BabySibs project found.

If doctors and parents can identify children with autism sooner, hopefully they can receive the support they need to live more fulfilling lives.

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