A study out of the Yale Child Study Center finds that children diagnosed with Autism display different blinking patterns when compared to typical children.
In the study, researchers had 93 typically developing children and children with an Autism spectrum disorder, all aged 2, watch short videos of two children in a wagon who get into an argument over whether the wagon door should be open or shut. Using eye-tracking technology, the researchers tracked when and how often the kids blinked.
Researchers found that both the kids with Autism and typically developing kids blinked less during the video.
However, typical kids blinked less during the emotional exchange between the kids, while the Autistic kids blinked less when there were moving parts, such as the wagon door being slammed.
Typically, the rate of eye blinks is an indicator of how engaged a person is with what they are watching, i.e. less blinking means higher attention. Therefore, the fact that the children with Autism were more engaged during the segment with the wagon, rather than the exchange between the characters points to the deficits in social awareness ineherent in Autism.
While at first glance, this study may seem odd, it is interesting in that it presents a physical clue, albeit one that is not always reliable, as to whether a child with Autism is engaged with stimuli in their environment. Many early intervention, ABA and other behavioral therapy programs target engagement (also known as “attending”), eye contact and on-task behavior as goals for the child, whether they are in school or at home.
“The more evidence that we have about the nature of the information that children with Autism are either delayed in deciphering — in this case, through visual pathways — or that they have certain preferences or biases for, the more informed we can be in the development of interventions… We try to take ever more precise steps into understanding what children with Autism understand and how they extract information from the world around them.”
While parents and teachers can’t realistically scrutinize their child or student’s eye blinks, this study points to what drives children with Autism to engage, or disengage, with the world around them. By modifying the child’s environment in order to maximize this engagement (and evidently lessen eye blinks), educators can curb problem behaviors associated with communication and social deficits and produce more effective teaching strategies.
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