How cartoons offer parents insight into autism spectrum disorder

Posted 6 months ago by David McManus
With lots of things happening on the screen of a Saturday morning cartoon or a YouTube video, each person is bound to notice something different or pay attention to different things. [Source: Shutterstock]
With lots of things happening on the screen of a Saturday morning cartoon or a YouTube video, each person is bound to notice something different or pay attention to different things. [Source: Shutterstock]

Researchers intend to use the 2024 findings into cartoons and autism spectrum disorder to conduct further research on the impact of early intervention.

Key points:

  • A team of researchers from the University of Geneva have revealed that people with autism pay attention in a different way and to different aspects
  • The study assessed a sample size of children as they watched cartoons to see what they were drawn to based on the direction of their eyes
  • Researchers argued that their findings indicated the need for early developmental intervention — especially in children with developmental delay — to improve their child’s ‘social attention’ abilities throughout life


Researchers from the University of Geneva, commonly referred to as ‘UNIGE,’ have looked at how children with autism spectrum disorders, known as ‘ASDs,’ react to cartoons and how that relates to their sense of ‘social attention.’

‘Social attention’ refers to the ability to detect someone’s facial expressions or otherwise interact with others in a meaningful and interpersonal way, which is why neurotypical babies tend to react so strongly to facial expressions or the movements of face-like layouts.

A UNIGE team used an eye-tracking device that records eye movements to analyse the visual preferences of 166 children with ASDs and 51 typically developing children while they freely viewed a short cartoon.

Given the gender imbalance in ASD diagnoses and the differences in autism-related traits between male and female people, all participants were male and ranged in age from two to seven years old.


Nada Kojovic, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychiatry at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine and first author of the study, explained that each child watched a three-minute cartoon featuring a little donkey in various social situations, without any specific instructions.

“This was not a cartoon specially designed for our study, but rather one that is very popular among children in this age group,” she said.

The typically developing children, who served as the sample group in the study, were inclined to view the cartoon from a social perspective, looking at how the characters interacted with each other.


For research participants with ASD, their attention was drawn to other unique visual aspects, such as textures or geometric shapes, as opposed to the social interaction. Researchers noted that through paying attention to objects in the background or irregularities, there was not the same development that might be observed in neurotypical or typically developing children who would hone their attention on social interaction rather than waver and be drawn to other abstract stimuli.

”It is likely that we could identify sub-groups with common preferences among ASD children, but there is no real ‘synchronisation’ of attention over the course of their development, unlike what is observed in [typically developing] children,” added Daphné Bavelier, co-author of the study and professor from the UNIGE’s Faculty of Psychology and Educational Sciences.

“This is the first time that a study has highlighted this developmental phenomenon,” she added.

The researchers published their findings in eLife and stated that early interventions aimed at enhancing social attention could help guide children with ASD onto developmental courses to create individualised support plans.

Notably, their research revealed that children with ASD whose line of sight lined up with their typically developing counterparts would face fewer hurdles when socially interacting with others in life and the attention test could predict future social difficulties for others with ASDs.

Marie Schaer, associate professor at the UNIGE Faculty of Medicine who led the research, said the findings show how important early intervention was for those with ASD, particularly for those with severe social attention impairment.

“Indeed, this work shows that if autistic children do not show interest in social interactions early on, they will become increasingly disinterested in them,” she said.

Researchers intend to continue their method of eye-tracking to observe how it has changed after early interventions targeted at improving social attention to note the differences compared to the most recent study.

The paper, ‘Unraveling the developmental dynamic of visual exploration of social interactions in autism,’ is available online.


For more information about early interventions, ASDs and the National Disability Insurance Scheme, please visit the respective information portals and let the team at Talking Disability know your thoughts on early intervention and therapy.

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