New Study Shows How Blinking Measures Toddler Engagement

Scientists at Marcus Autism Center Use New Measure to Understand How Children with Autism Engage in and Experience the Visual World

ATLANTA (December 12, 2011)–Researchers at Marcus Autism Center, Emory University, and Yale University have discovered a new way to measure how engaged people are with what they’re watching. The new method relies on measuring the precise timing of when people blink, and when they don’t. More importantly, they can use this new method to learn how children with autism engage in the world around them. The results are reported in the December 12, 2011, online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

If you are like most people, you probably don’t notice when you blink. In fact, if you’re an average adult, you probably don’t notice that you spend nearly 45 minutes each day with your eyes closed – blinking. The research reveals that people unconsciously inhibit blinking at precise moments. Why would people blink at some moments but not at others? 

“When we blink, we lose visual information,” says Sarah Shultz, a graduate student in the Psychology Department at Yale University. “Our eyelids close. We’re not conscious of the timing of our blinks, but they still impact the visual information we take in.” 

Shultz and her colleagues Ami Klin and Warren Jones at the Marcus Autism Center and Emory School of Medicine work with children with autism, studying how these children look at the world and how they learn from the things they pay attention to. While measuring what 2-year-olds look at when watching videos of other children playing, Shultz made an interesting observation: she noticed that the children blinked less while the videos were playing than they did before or after the videos. 

“That initial observation really started the whole study. It made us wonder if we might see the same effect at a micro-scale: that is, not just for a whole video, but moment-to-moment, whether the rate of blinking might go down or up, depending on whether viewers perceived a scene to be more or less important,” says Warren Jones. 

The researchers tested the hypothesis by letting 93 two-year-old children watch a video. The video showed a simple scene of a boy and girl playing together, but some of the children watching the scene were typically-developing, while some had Autism Spectrum Disorders. The researchers measured when the children blinked and when they didn’t, and the results were surprising.

“Typical 2-year-olds all inhibited their blinking at the same moments in the video. And they were more likely to inhibit their blinking when watching more emotional moments, and when looking at the faces of onscreen characters,” said Shultz. However, toddlers with autism were more likely to inhibit their blinking when looking at physical objects, and at physical objects in motion.

“While we knew that young children with autism paid less attention to social cues and information, this is a new insight into understanding what kids perceive to be most important,” said Jones. “Even if they’re looking at the same thing, typically developing children and children with autism may perceive a scene differently. For a two-year-old with language delays, or even an 8 or 10 year-old who struggles to communicate, this kind of measure can tell us about that child’s experience and, with that information, hopefully improve our efforts to help that child learn.” 

In addition to allowing unique insights into how children with Autism Spectrum Disorders engage with and experience the visual world, Shultz says that the finding is of broad relevance to understanding human perception in general. “It is remarkable that eye-blinks, a seemingly simple physiological function, should be inherently linked to something as complex as the subjective assessment of what content in the visual world is or is not engaging. This means that we can measure not only what a person is looking at, but also how important and how engaging that thing is to the person,” says Shultz.


Sarah Shultz is a graduate student in the Department of Psychology at Yale University. Ami Klin, PhD, is the Director of the Marcus Autism Center, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, and Chief of the Division of Autism & Related Disorders in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine. Warren Jones, PhD, is the Director of Research at the Marcus Autism Center and Assistant Professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Emory University School of Medicine.

The study, Inhibitions of eye blinking reveals subjective perceptions of stimulus salience was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Simons Foundation. For more information, visit To speak with Dr. Warren Jones, please contact Lindsay Graham at 404-785-6748 or

The study, was funded by the National Institute of Mental Health and the Simons Foundation. For more information, visit . To speak with Dr. Warren Jones, please contact Lindsay Graham at 404-785-6748.

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Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta has been 100 percent dedicated to kids for more than 100 years. A not-for-profit organization, Children’s is dedicated to making kids better today and healthier tomorrow. Our specialized care helps children get better faster and live healthier lives. Managing more than 870,000 patient visits annually at three hospitals and 27 neighborhood locations, Children’s is the largest healthcare provider for children in Georgia and one of the largest pediatric clinical care providers in the country. Children’s offers access to more than 60 pediatric specialties and programs and is ranked among the top children’s hospitals in the country by U.S. News & World Report. With generous philanthropic and volunteer support since 1915, Children’s has impacted the lives of children in Georgia, the United States and throughout the world. Visit for more information.

Marcus Autism Center

The Marcus Autism Center is a not-for-profit organization dedicated to the diagnosis and treatment of children with autism spectrum disorders and developmental disabilities, and is the largest center for clinical care of children & adolescents with Autism Spectrum Disorders in the country.  The Marcus Autism Center’s staff of highly-trained pediatric professionals provide comprehensive diagnostic and needs-based evaluations and a wide array of treatments programs spanning severe behavior, language and communication, school-based and in-home programs, and feeding disorders.  From 1991, Marcus has served more than 40,000 individuals and their families. Visit for more information.

Tags: General News, Research
Published: Monday, December 12, 2011