How people pay attention to faces in videos could help screen for autism

RIVERSIDE, Calif. — Infants, kids, and adults do not view faces the same way while watching videos, according to researchers from the University of California-Riverside. Their study finds the role of “face centering” increases as someone grows older.

These findings hold a large array of potential applications and implications, ranging from informing children’s TV programs to autism spectrum disorder diagnoses.

Face centering refers to when a face is in the middle of the scene, instead of the periphery. Through a series of experiments, the research team analyzed two distinct visual cues that take place while people watch media: face saliency and face centering. Face saliency is the degree by which a face stands out from the surrounding scene.

Earlier research conducted by psychologists suggests attention to salient areas of a scene tends to drop with greater age. Surprisingly, however, researchers found no such change while performing tests on people of various ages (ranging from just six months-old to young adults). Based on these latest results, the team posits that face centering, not saliency, is what changes with age.

“We found that what develops with age is how observers use centering as a cue,” says study leader John M. Franchak, an associate professor of psychology, in a university release. “Adults look at faces that are centered in the screen likely because they’ve learned with age that television directors show us important characters centered in view. Infants are equally likely to look at faces that are centered and faces that are at the edge of the screen, but with age the role of centering increases. More work is needed to understand what drives the emergence of centering as a cue for face looking.”

Could this help with autism screening?

In all, 79 children and 20 adults took part in this project. Each person viewed two “Sesame Street” clips, two music videos, and a video clip from a children’s science demonstration. All of the videos displayed a number of faces. As the group watched, study authors tracked each participant’s eye movement to gauge the influence of saliency and centering as cues for face looking. Importantly, they also investigated if the influence of those cues changed with age.

A more complete understanding of what dictates attention to faces in videos has several potential uses, researchers say. For instance, adults are more sensitive to various kinds of information about faces in television shows in comparison to infants. This could help inform children’s learning television and help in the development of new techniques for diagnosing autism spectrum disorder.

By the time a person reaches adulthood, chances are they’ve watched their fair share of television. By the time people matured, they probably know that the conventional rules of television mean important people are front and center, and the camera shots focus attention on what matters. Prof. Franchak believes it may take years before kids learn this.

“Many studies have shown that infants and young children might struggle to learn from television,” Prof. Franchak notes. “Creators of children’s educational TV shows try to figure out how to improve children’s learning. Knowing what cues shape where people look could help design children’s TV more effectively, for example, knowing that infants and children do look more often at a salient face. Creators of children’s TV could make the main character more salient and not focus on face centering.”

“Clinicians have also been interested in people’s attention to faces as a biomarker for autism,” he continues. “People with ASD have been shown to look less frequently at faces in screens compared with neurotypical participants. Knowing how face centering shapes behavior and how it changes with age could be important for designing better diagnostic tests.”

Prof. Franchak says that determining the extent by which orienting to faces depends on face saliency and centering, as well whether or not orienting based on those features fluctuates with age, will be key to settling on which characteristics of face stimuli should be controlled in diagnostic testing.

“Our experiences watching TV have made us really good at picking out what’s an important place to look, and we’re not even aware of what we’re doing,” adds study co-author and graduate student Kellan Kadooka. “Even if there’s a lot going on in a scene, our past experiences have given us short-cuts and biases that help us focus on where to look.”

Moving forward, study authors plan to continue their work, and link face-centering and face-saliency to learning.

“Our prediction is that older kids would show a boost for learning if centered characters were conveying important information,” Prof. Franchak concludes. “We plan to test this.”

The study is published in the journal Infancy.

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