People with Fragile X syndrome spend less time looking at the eye region of the face compared to peers with autism, but they can tell the difference between different emotional expressions, a study using eye-tracking technology has found.

The investigation, by researchers at Coventry University and Birmingham University, aimed to understand more about the subtle but important differences in social interaction that people with Fragile X syndrome and autism face, with the goal of helping to bring about more targeted interventions in the future.

Dr Hayley Crawford of the Centre for Research in Psychology, Behaviour and Achievement at Coventry University and her colleagues are looking in particular at Fragile X syndrome and Cornelia de Lange syndromes, both of which are associated with learning difficulties and autism spectrum disorder.

In the study, Dr Crawford and colleagues compared where two groups of males – one with Fragile X syndrome and the other with autism spectrum disorder – look on other people’s faces. The study used eye-tracking technology to record eye movements when presented with pictures of faces on a computer screen.

“We use eye-tracking technology because it doesn't require a verbal response and is also a very good tool for understanding how people process information,” she said. “For example, we can find out what grabs people's attention, as this is usually the first thing they look at.

“There were two main results which emerged. Firstly, individuals with Fragile X syndrome spent less time looking at the eye region of faces compared to individuals with autism spectrum disorder. Secondly, people with Fragile X syndrome could tell the difference between positive, negative and neutral emotional expressions.”

The results are important as knowing what different facial expressions mean is a very important skill. “We hope that by highlighting differences in the way in which people process social information, we can understand more about the social difficulties they may experience,” added Dr Crawford.

This study has helped researchers further understand the subtle but important differences in the social difficulties faced by people in those with Fragile X syndrome and autism. Acknowledging and knowing about these differences has important implications for education and interventions for people and children with the syndromes.

“By highlighting subtle differences in the way in which people with Fragile X syndrome and autism process social information, we are getting closer to being able to suggest that more targeted interventions should be designed for people with Fragile X syndrome and the difficulties they may face,” concluded Dr Crawford.