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Autism study tracking eye movement uses MATLAB to find possible cause of sensory overload

Autism is a global concern. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states the current prevalence of autism is 1 in 68 children in the US. It is estimated that 1 percent of the world population has autism spectrum disorder (ASD).

In addition to social issues and communication challenges, many of people with ASD have difficulty with sensory integration and suffer from sensory overload. Sensory overload symptoms can vary widely, from visual distraction to tactile issues. Some experience everyday sounds in the environment as a disturbing cacophony of noise.

Too much information (TMI)

Earlier this month, Forbes’ article Experience What It Feels Like To Have Autism contained video examples that provide a glimpse into sensory overload and the anxiety it can create. The “TMI” video shown below was created by the UK’s National Autistic Society. It shows the sensory overload experienced by a young boy when he accompanies his mother to a mall. The video has been viewed more than 4 million times since April.

Can’t see the forest for the trees?

People with ASD often focus on details, ignoring the bigger picture. For example, children with ASD may exhibit extreme focus on a part of a toy such as the wheels on a toy car or the spinning rotor of a toy helicopter, but fail to use it in “pretend” play such as driving or flying.

It has long been thought that these children excel at “local processing”, which requires focusing fine detail. When it comes to “global processing”, or looking at the overall context of their environment, they struggle.

In an attempt to better understand visual processing in children with ASD, researchers from the University of Auckland, together with autism researchers from University College, London, developed a methodology that separates global processing ability from local processing skills.

“For the first time we now have a way of separating these two functions in the lab,” says Professor Dakin who leads the School of Optometry and Vision Science at the University of Auckland. “When we apply it to children with autism, we find they don’t have a global processing problem at all. If anything, they are better at global processing.”

The study found that people with ASD do have a strong attention to detail. But that didn’t mean they were missing the big picture: In fact, they were pooling too many details. They see the big picture but can’t ignore irrelevant information. The excess of details is likely contributing to the sensory overload. They suffer from TMI.

“Their sensory overload is an inability to resist the irrelevant,” says Professor Dakin. “If anything, you could almost think of that as more integration – the exact opposite of what people have thought. Our work shows that integration is fine in people with autism, they just can’t ignore noise.”

MATLAB provided a single platform for this study. It enabled accurate presentation of dynamic visual stimuli, interspersed with engaging cartoon content, and real-time control of lab equipment including eye trackers to monitor where children looked. It was also used to develop models of the expected performance.

In addition to understanding ASD, the vision monitoring program could eventually be used to help diagnose ASD. It could also help teach kids ways to improve their social behavior, such as where they should look during a conversation.

VR: Experience sensory overload for yourself

If this has you wondering how sensory overload feels, the TMI video is now available in a virtual reality experience. With cardboard goggles and a smartphone, you can experience sensory overload from the boy’s perspective. You can order goggles and download the app from this link.

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