Atypical Visual Saliency in Autism Spectrum Disorder Quantified through Model-Based Eye Tracking

Shuo Wang, Ming Jiang, Xavier Morin Duchesne, Elizabeth A. Laugeson, Daniel P. Kennedy, Ralph Adolphs, Qi Zhao

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

221 Scopus citations


The social difficulties that are a hallmark of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are thought to arise, at least in part, from atypical attention toward stimuli and their features. To investigate this hypothesis comprehensively, we characterized 700 complex natural scene images with a novel three-layered saliency model that incorporated pixel-level (e.g., contrast), object-level (e.g., shape), and semantic-level attributes (e.g., faces) on 5,551 annotated objects. Compared with matched controls, people with ASD had a stronger image center bias regardless of object distribution, reduced saliency for faces and for locations indicated by social gaze, and yet a general increase in pixel-level saliency at the expense of semantic-level saliency. These results were further corroborated by direct analysis of fixation characteristics and investigation of feature interactions. Our results for the first time quantify atypical visual attention in ASD across multiple levels and categories of objects.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)604-616
Number of pages13
Issue number3
StatePublished - Nov 4 2015
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

Funding Information:
We thank Elina Veytsman and Jessica Hopkins for help in recruiting research participants, Justin Lee and Tim Armstrong for collecting the data, Lynn Paul for psychological assessments, and Laurent Itti for valuable comments. This research was supported by a post-doctoral fellowship from the Autism Science Foundation (S.W.), a Fonds de Recherche du Québec en Nature et Technologies (FRQNT) predoctoral fellowship (X.M.D.), a NIH grant (K99MH094409/R00MH094409) and NARSAD Young Investigator Award (D.P.K.), the Caltech Conte Center for the Neurobiology of Social Decision Making from NIMH and a grant from Simons Foundation (SFARI Award 346839, R.A.), and the Singapore Defense Innovative Research Program 9014100596 and the Singapore Ministry of Education Academic Research Fund Tier 2 MOE2014-T2-1-144 (Q.Z.).

Publisher Copyright:
© 2015 Elsevier Inc.


  • Attention
  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Center bias
  • Eye tracking
  • Faces
  • Saliency
  • Semantics
  • Social cognition


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