The overarching goal of our research is to understand how basic mechanisms of social perception and social attention contribute to real-world social behaviour. Social attention is the bias to attend to other people and where those people are directing their attention. While it is known clinically that individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD) have early abnormalities in social attention, there is little consensus on how pervasive these differences are in older children and adolescents. In addition, a key goal is to understand and how these mechanisms of social attention contribute to social perception (i.e., interpreting social information from people’s faces). Our group uses a variety of methods to examine these processes in both typical and atypical development, stemming from basic laboratory tasks to examinations of naturalistic social behaviour.
Face-to-face eye tracking
Using a portable eye tracker and high definition video recordings, this line of research examines real world social attention behaviour. We recently purchased the SMI ETG2 wireless glasses system to conduct this research: http://www.eyetracking-glasses.com/products/eye-tracking-glasses-2-wireless/technology/
How do children, adolescents, and adults, explore faces to gather social information? In this line of research, we use eye tracking and the Moving Window Technique, in which the participant explores a blurry face with a window controlled by the computer mouse. These methods are used to determine where observers allocate their attention when judging social information from faces. To see the results from a 2012 study from our lab that used this technique, download this article: cdev12039
Production of facial expressions
In this line of research, we use emotion recognition software, called Emotient, to automatically detect and quantify the facial expressions of observers while they view a variety of stimuli. We are interested in how children and adults respond nonverbally, i.e., with their facial expressions, to communicate their emotions. A recent publication from our lab using this technique can be found here: pdf
We measure observers’ eye movements to natural scenes to understand attentional mechanisms underlying social perception. Past research using this method revealed a strong bias to select the eyes of other people (e.g., Birmingham Bischof Kingstone 2008 QJEP). In addition to measuring gaze selection, SARG examines observers’ tendency to orient attention to where others are looking (gaze following). We are also exploring the conditions under which the seemingly automatic bias to select and follow gaze is overridden.
Real world experiences of people with ASD
In another vein of research using a totally different approach, we use qualitative methods to explore the lived experiences of people on the autism spectrum as they navigate their everyday lives. We appreciate the richness of the insights that can be gathered through participant observations in a variety of real world contexts, as well as through interviewing people and simply asking them how they experience and process social information. Here, we particularly focus on inclusive educational contexts and social inclusion, from the perspective of persons with a diagnosis. We also collect information about lived experiences of people with ASD by coding and conducting qualitative analyses of posts found in online web forums designed specifically for people on the spectrum.