“Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” is a classic movie made in 1966, starring Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton, George Segal and Sandy Dennis. It is now the centerpiece of a fascinating research program seeking to understand how people with autism perceive the world.
Why this film?
"It's a small cast of characters, [a] brilliant movie, very well-acted and intensely social," says Dr. Fred Volkmar at the Yale Child Study Center.
And it is that social interaction that matters most. The researchers hook up volunteers who have autism to a device that precisely tracks where their eyes focus as they watch the movie. When there’s a passionate kiss, most viewers focus on the lips. But people with autism look elsewhere — often at the light switch on the wall.
"The world of objects is much more central to them than the world of people," says Volkmar.
Dr. Ami Klin, who designed the experiment, can analyze the eye responses frame-by-frame.
In one scene, where Richard Burton angrily smashes a bottle and his dinner guests react in horror, most people look into the eyes of the guests to see their emotion. Those with autism look between them.
Are they avoiding the emotion or just not detecting it?
"The eye does not seem to mean much to them," says Klin. "Even when they focus on the eye, they appear not to get too much information from it."
The goal of the research is not just understanding the brain of people with autism. The researchers are now hooking the eye-tracking device to children who do not have autism. The kids do not watch adult movies, but when they see faces and characters, the autistic kids also focus away from the eyes and emotion.
"What we really would like to have is something that we could take into a pediatrician's office or use more effectively for screening," says Volkmar. "So we could pick up children at risk at a very young age."
Experts agree early detection is the key for helping children with autism and this new understanding could be a big step.