Press Release: How Social Information in Images Plays a Role in Processing Strategies for Those with an Autism-Related Phenotype

Tanvee Sinha

If given an image of someone’s face, what features would you hone-in on? Many people focus on the eyes since they provide more social information than other facial features according to a study published in Social Cognition on impressions from facial appearance. This research implies that humans have evolved to consider the nose and mouth too, as these “important details” can be used to understand their environments. Known as sensory cognition, the intricacies of social stimuli differ depending on the person, based on what they value and prioritize.

Those with autism spectrum disorder, for example, spend less time focusing on core facial features according to a paper published in Neuropsychologia. In light of these findings, Nidhila Masha’s paper published in the May 2019 issue of the Journal of Young Investigators explores how people with an autism-related phenotype prefer grayscale images to their colored counterparts, since grayscale images do not provide such sharp social cues. It questions whether this behavior from individuals with autism related phenotypes is attributed to the common symptom of autism spectrum disorder that causes an experience of sensory overload.

This experiment used the Broad Autism Phenotype Questionnaiare (BAPQ), a test used to assess traits linked to autism, but not all symptoms of the disorder. In using the BAPQ, 19 participants were split into two groups: those labeled as having an autism-related phenotype (BAPQ+) and those without (BAPQ-).

Participants were shown a subset of 32 studio images of adults photographed against a plain white background, with a 1:1 gender ratio and a fair racial distribution (11 African American, 11 Asian, 10 Caucasian). For the sake of variability, out of the 32 images, some had “more facial information,” and the images were either colored, grayscale, or colored with diminished vibrancy and brightness.  To measure each participant’s fixation on certain details and whether they focused more or less on the eyes, mouth and nose, a threshold system was set up. This system recorded the facial response of individuals to different pictures. Observations were made regarding how this focus or fixation changed between grayscale and colored images.

Grayscale and Reduced Contrast from the Research Study (respectively). Courtesy of Nidhila Masha.

Grayscale and Reduced Contrast from the Research Study (respectively). Courtesy of Nidhila Masha.

Overall, the results showed that BAPQ+ spent significantly more time on the eyes of faces in grayscaled images than the colored images, but there was no notable difference between reduced contrast and colored images. Therefore, as according to the hypotheses, BAPQ+ participants did indeed show significant differences on the time spent focusing on the eyes depending on the image color, whereas there were no significant differences in the BAPQ- group. Because the colored images represented “more stimuli” and allowed for more detailing of “social features,” (especially the eyes) this was key in demonstrating  that people do in fact show noticeably different reactions with different levels of social stimuli.

To build on this research, they propose that trials should use a larger sample size to improve the statistical analysis of the potential differences in the responses as well as being done with actual ASD patients. Nevertheless, these findings provide important information regarding basic environmental conditions that are more “comfortable” for individuals with autism-related phenotypes. Their disengagement from stimuli that present key social information, as shown with color and core facial features in this study could potentially stem from fear of sensory overload, a common symptom with ASD patients, or those with related phenotypes.

“It's a well-researched subject, Masha said. “Given that, in the past, eye-tracking studies investigating facial processing in ASD have used grayscale images in their analyses, we were intrigued to find that grayscale images may not actually be a viable proxy for color images in such contexts.”

Masha and her advisers believe that understanding how to control these social stimuli in everyday life could suggest potential treatment for helping those with these autism-related phenotypes confront this feeling of being overwhelmed and feeling more comfortable with basic social cues.


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