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Understanding Faces with Eye Tracking Technology

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For people with certain genetic syndromes, interpreting faces is very different. Dr. Hayley Crawford of the Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement has been using eye-tracking technology to study how individuals with the condition Fragile X look at faces, which could change the way people receive treatment in the future.

She explained: “We use eye-tracking technology because it doesn’t require a verbal response and is also a very good tool for understanding how people process information. For example, we can find out what grabs people’s attention, as this is usually the first thing they look at.”

Hayley and her colleagues are looking specifically at Fragile X and Cornelia de Lange syndromes, both of which are associated with learning difficulties and autistic spectrum.

In the recent study, Hayley, together with colleagues from the University of Birmingham, conducted a study of males with Fragile X syndrome and males with autism spectrum disorder, to investigate where they look on other people’s faces. The study used eye-tracking technology to record eye movements when presented with pictures of faces on a computer screen.

Hayley explained: “There were two main results which emerged. Firstly, individuals with Fragile X syndrome spent less time looking at the eye region of faces compared to individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Secondly, people with Fragile X syndrome could tell the difference between positive, negative and neutral emotional expressions.”

The findings are significant, as facial expression understanding is hugely important skill in social life. “We hope that by highlighting differences in the way in which people process social information, we can understand more about the social difficulties they may experience.”

This study has helped researchers further understand the subtle but important differences in the social difficulties faced by people in those with Fragile X syndrome and autism. Acknowledging and knowing about these differences has important implications for education and interventions for people and children with the syndromes. Hayley added: “By highlighting subtle differences in the way in which people with Fragile X syndrome and autism process social information, we are getting closer to being able to suggest that more targeted interventions should be designed for people with Fragile X syndrome and the difficulties they may face.”

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Coventry University