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Matthew Peterson, Amanda Haskins, Ian Zaun, Nancy Kanwisher; Mismatch of face fixation preference and retinotopic tuning of face perception in autism spectrum condition. Journal of Vision 2018;18(10):711. doi: 10.1167/18.10.711.
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Why is face recognition impaired in autism spectrum condition (ASC)? One hypothesis holds that deficits arise from reduced fixation of the information-rich eye region. However, neurotypical individuals (NT) who prefer to fixate low on faces perform as well as NT individuals who fixate high (Mehoudar et al., 2014). Further, individuals tend to recognize faces best near their personal preferred fixation location (Peterson & Eckstein, 2013), suggesting mutual retinotopic tuning of the eye movement and face processing systems. Here, we tested the hypothesis that impaired face recognition in ASC is associated not with lower face fixations per se, but with suboptimal tuning to an individual's preferred fixation. We measured eye movements, face memory ability, and face perception ability in 16 ASC and 15 NT control subjects. We found that ASC participants had: 1) a trend toward lower preferred fixations (p=.07), 2) large face memory deficits (CFMT, p< .001; Celebrity Identification, p=.01), and 3) mild deficits in a successive same/different face perception task while fixating either the eyes or mouth (p=.03). Surprisingly, higher preferred fixations were associated with larger recognition deficits in ASC but not NT participants. The difference in perceptual discrimination performance between individuals' best and worst fixation locations was not significantly different between groups, suggesting the presence of retinotopic tuning in ASC. Critically, face perception performance was better when faces were presented closer to an individual's preferred fixation location for NT but not ASC participants (p=.008). The absence of a systematic relationship between preferred fixations and position-dependent performance might suggest a failure to develop typical mutual tuning of the eye movement and face recognition systems in ASC. Alternatively, lab measurements of preferred face fixation in ASC participants may not accurately reflect their real-world looking behavior.
Meeting abstract presented at VSS 2018
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