Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts
Eye Tracking Technologies to Characterize and Optimize Visual Attending in Down Syndrome

Eye Tracking Technologies to Characterize and Optimize Visual Attending in Down Syndrome

Headshot of Krista Wilkinson
PI: Krista Wilkinson

NIH R01HD083381
Administered in: College of Health and Human Development


Down Syndrome (DS) is the most common known genetic origin of intellectual disability and has an estimated incidence of 1 in every 1000 live births. Children with Down syndrome face unique challenges as they enter into the school years, because the speech that was previously adequate for communication with familiar partners in supportive settings may not be sufficient for academic communication with unfamiliar partners. Indeed, 95% of parents surveyed reported that their children with DS had difficulty being understood by persons outside their immediate social circle (Kumin, 1994). This has significant implications for academic, social, and vocational success; children with limited language skills are at risk of falling behind nondisabled peers academically and experiencing social isolation. Secondary issues often arise when children experience frustration in communication, commonly in the form of challenging behaviors. Children with DS can therefore benefit from communication interventions that provide them with the tools to succeed throughout the school years. One form of intervention is called aided augmentative and alternative communication (AAC). In typical clinical applications, aided AAC systems employ picture books, tablet-style computers that present the user with graphic symbols, and sometimes text or synthesized voice output. Because AAC relies on vision rather than sound/speech for access to the communication messages, it is critical to map out how children with DS examine and extract information from visual AAC displays. Otherwise there is the risk of implementing systems that are poorly matched to children’s skills and needs, a practice that in turn results in limited use or abandonment of the system. Few current AAC designs consider the fit between the system and the visual processing skills of users, and most are uninformed by empirical knowledge about human visual information processing. Moreover, little is known about visual processing in persons with significant communication limitations. This research aims to improve the design of AAC displays through characterization of visual attention patterns to different AAC displays and their effects on functional use. Eye tracking – rarely used in DS – will reveal attention patterns/processes that typically go unrecorded in behavioral research. Our three-phase program will begin with eye tracking studies of visual attention under largely non-social laboratory conditions. In the next phase, we will introduce social interactions and record gaze path using mobile eye tracking technology. In the final phase, we will translate the knowledge gained in the laboratory studies to optimize functional communication in individuals with DS in performing tasks that represent typical daily life activities.

Additional Faculty:

Headshot of Rick Gilmore
Rick Gilmore Co-Investigator Psychology

Research Staff:

  • Sophie Wolf, Research Coordinator (2020-2021)
  • McKenna Shulte, Research Coordinator (2019-2020)
  • Caroline Fehr, Research Coordinator (2018-2019)
  • Rachel Bennett, Research Coordinator (2017-2018)
  • Emily Neumann, Lab Manager (2015-2016)
  • Christine Regiec, Lab Manager (2014-2015)



Pictured standing on left:
Jiali Liang, Ph.D. student (Communication Sciences and Disorders)

Seated in front:
Stephanie May and Danielle Nacco (Undergraduate students)

Seated in middle:
Amelia Weiss and Jessica Spencer, M.S. students (Communication Sciences and Disorders)

Standing in back:
Tara O’Neill and Rupert Johnson, Ph.D. students (Communication Sciences and Disorders)

Not in photo: Dawn Sowers, doctoral student (2019 – present)