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J Autism Dev Disord (2013) 43:14371446

DOI 10.1007/s10803-012-1699-1

ORIGINAL PAPER

Perception of Pointing from Biological Motion Point-Light


Displays in Typically Developing Children and Children
with Autism Spectrum Disorder
John Swettenham Anna Remington
Katherine Laing Rosemary Fletcher
Mike Coleman Juan-Carlos Gomez

Published online: 3 November 2012


Springer Science+Business Media New York 2012

Abstract We examined whether the movement involved


in a pointing gesture, depicted using point-light displays, is
sufficient to cue attention in typically developing children
(TD) and children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD)
(aged 811 years). Using a Posner-type paradigm, a centrally located display indicated the location of a forthcoming target on 80 % of trials and the opposite location
on 20 % of trials. TD children, but not children with ASD,
were faster to identify a validly cued target than an
invalidly cued target. A scrambled version of the pointlight pointing gesture, retaining individual dot speed and
direction of movement but not the configuration, produced
no validity effect in either group. A video of a pointing
gesture produced validity effects in both groups.
Keywords Autism  ASD  Pointing  Joint attention 
Biological motion

J. Swettenham (&)  A. Remington  K. Laing  R. Fletcher 


M. Coleman
Developmental Science, Division of Psychology and Language
Science, University College London, Chandler House,
2 Wakefield Street, London WC1N 1PF, UK
e-mail: j.swettenham@ucl.ac.uk
Present Address:
A. Remington
Oxford University, Oxford, UK
J.-C. Gomez
Department of Psychology, University of St Andrews,
Westburn Lane, St Andrews, Fife KY16 9JP, UK
e-mail: jg5@st-andrews.ac.uk

Introduction
Pointing is a powerful and common visual referential signal
(Kita 2003), virtually universal and that ontogenetically
appears very early in development, before the onset of language. However, it can fulfill relatively complex communicative functions (Tomasello and Carpenter 2007). Infants
as young as one year old are capable of producing communicative pointing behaviours combined with joint attention
for requesting and informing others, and the ability to follow
someone elses attention by looking where they point
emerges even earlier (Carpenter et al. 1998). Although forms
of pointing have been described in captive chimpanzees and
other apes (Gomez 2007), pointing remains a characteristically human signal that appears to play an important role in
the early ontogeny of social cognition and communication
(Tomasello and Carpenter 2007).
The pointing gesture not only provides a clue to the
location of an interesting or threatening event, it can also
provide information about a social partners possible
mental state. Along with other goal-directed actions such as
eye gaze and head turns, pointing can indicate what a
person is looking at and attending to so that inferences can
potentially be made about that persons knowledge,
thoughts or feelings (Tomasello and Carpenter 2007). It has
therefore been argued that the ability to interpret the goaldirected actions of others is an important component in
social communication (Argyle and Cook 1976; BaronCohen 1995; Gomez 2007). In fact, data from longitudinal
studies now clearly demonstrate a link between young
childrens skills in interpreting goal-directed actions
(including pointing) in joint attention and the development
of social communication and language skills (Brooks and
Meltzoff 2008; Carpenter et al. 1998; Charman et al. 2000;
Mundy et al. 2007; Vaughan Van Hecke et al. 2007).

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1438

In this paper we focus on the perception of pointing in


children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition
characterized by impairments in social and communicative
functioning as well as by marked behavioural rigidity
(American Psychiatric Association (APA) 1994). Among
the earliest occurring symptoms of ASD are a lack of
pointing, a failure to follow another persons pointing
gesture as well as a delay in the ability to follow anothers
gaze (Baird et al. 2000; Charman et al. 1997). These joint
attention skills emerge late in development relative to
typically developing children or children with other
developmental delays (Camaioni et al. 1997, 2003;
Carpenter et al. 2002) limiting the opportunity for social
learning and impacting on the development of social
communication skills and language (Charman et al. 2000).
Despite the importance of the pointing gesture, little is
known about the perception of pointing in typical development or in ASD. Pointing is a complex signal, usually
co-ordinated with eye gaze and involving a specific
movement and configuration of the arm and hand. We
know virtually nothing about the relative role of each of
these components in the perception of pointing. In this
study we look at the relative importance of the information
provided by the movement. Specifically, we tested if
pointing can be recognised and have a referential effect
from the contemplation of point-light displays showing the
biological dynamics of the pointing movement without any
of its additional shape features. We therefore investigated
whether the biological motion in point-light displays of a
person pointing carried sufficient information to orient a
childs attention in the direction of the point.
Biological motion appears to hold a special status in
human visual perception. For example, typical observers
generally demonstrate an enhanced visual sensitivity to
human biological motion compared to other complex nonhuman movements (Pinto and Shiffrar 2009). Point-light
displays depicting human movement, created by dots
moving on a screen as if attached to the joints of a person
performing an action (Johansson 1973), can be readily
detected by typically developing children (Annaz et al.
2010; Pavlova et al. 2001), can convey information about
actions and emotions (Atkinson et al. 2004; Heberlein et al.
2004) and can be discriminated from scrambled point-light
displays early in infancy (Simion et al. 2008). The visual
system seems to be particularly tuned for the detection and
analysis of biological motion, even when depicted by such
sparse point-light displays. We therefore hypothesized that
in typically developing children the biological motion in
the pointing gesture may be sufficient for its detection and
analysis.
In contrast, evidence suggesting a partial disruption in
the perception of point-light displays of biological motion
in ASD led us to hypothesize that the movement specific to

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J Autism Dev Disord (2013) 43:14371446

the pointing gesture may not be sufficient for the perception of pointing in this group (Simmons et al. 2009; Kaiser
and Shiffrar 2009). Although observers with ASD do not
differ from controls in the ability to verbally describe some
actions (e.g. kicking, walking, throwing) depicted by pointlight displays, they are poorer at describing point-light
displays depicting socially meaningful actions such as
emotions (Hubert et al. 2007; Moore et al. 1997; Pavlova
et al. 2001). Children with ASD are also less sensitive at
discriminating point-light biological motion from scrambled motion when briefly presented (Blake et al. 2003) and
when presented with a mask (Annaz et al. 2010), they fail
to show the perceptual advantage for point-light biological
motion versus object motion (Kaiser et al. 2010), and are
less effective at discriminating between biological motion
and mechanical motion (Cook et al. 2009). Although
several studies report no impairments in biological motion
perception in older adolescents or adults with ASD
(Herrington et al. 2007; Murphy et al. 2009; Saygin 2007),
neuroimaging data suggests that even when performance
on the behavioural task is unimpaired, the group with ASD
still show reduced activity, relative to controls, in brain
areas thought to be important for the perception of biological motion (e.g. Superior Temporal SulcusSTSp)
(Freitag et al. 2008; Herrington et al. 2007; Kaiser et al.
2010). Finally, preferential looking tasks have revealed that
young children with ASD do not show the typical orienting
bias to point-light biological motion versus scrambled
point-light displays (Annaz et al. 2011; Klin et al. 2009).
In sum, the questions that we address in this paper are
the following: can the referential information of pointing
be conveyed to typically developing children just from
the movement pattern of the action captured by few point
lights allowing the child to use this information as a cue to
shift attention in anticipation of a forthcoming target? If so,
can children with ASD respond to these point-light pointing displays in a similar way to typically developing
children?
We used the Posner cueing paradigm (Posner 1980) to
assess whether point-light displays of the pointing gesture
could provoke a referential response of orientation of
attention. Posners orienting tasks allow experimenters to
measure the attention shifting response. In one of the tasks,
a central cue (e.g. an arrow) indicates the location in the
periphery of a forthcoming target (valid trials) or the
opposite location (invalid trials) and a faster response time
to identify the target on valid versus invalid trials suggests
that the participant has oriented attention in the direction
indicated by the cue. It is also possible to vary the time
delay between cue and target appearance (stimulus onset
asynchrony (SOA)); orienting responses following a short
delay (e.g. 100 ms) suggests an automatic or reflexive
response, whereas a long delay (e.g. 800 ms) provides

1438

In this paper we focus on the perception of pointing in


children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), a condition
characterized by impairments in social and communicative
functioning as well as by marked behavioural rigidity
(American Psychiatric Association (APA) 1994). Among
the earliest occurring symptoms of ASD are a lack of
pointing, a failure to follow another persons pointing
gesture as well as a delay in the ability to follow anothers
gaze (Baird et al. 2000; Charman et al. 1997). These joint
attention skills emerge late in development relative to
typically developing children or children with other
developmental delays (Camaioni et al. 1997, 2003;
Carpenter et al. 2002) limiting the opportunity for social
learning and impacting on the development of social
communication skills and language (Charman et al. 2000).
Despite the importance of the pointing gesture, little is
known about the perception of pointing in typical development or in ASD. Pointing is a complex signal, usually
co-ordinated with eye gaze and involving a specific
movement and configuration of the arm and hand. We
know virtually nothing about the relative role of each of
these components in the perception of pointing. In this
study we look at the relative importance of the information
provided by the movement. Specifically, we tested if
pointing can be recognised and have a referential effect
from the contemplation of point-light displays showing the
biological dynamics of the pointing movement without any
of its additional shape features. We therefore investigated
whether the biological motion in point-light displays of a
person pointing carried sufficient information to orient a
childs attention in the direction of the point.
Biological motion appears to hold a special status in
human visual perception. For example, typical observers
generally demonstrate an enhanced visual sensitivity to
human biological motion compared to other complex nonhuman movements (Pinto and Shiffrar 2009). Point-light
displays depicting human movement, created by dots
moving on a screen as if attached to the joints of a person
performing an action (Johansson 1973), can be readily
detected by typically developing children (Annaz et al.
2010; Pavlova et al. 2001), can convey information about
actions and emotions (Atkinson et al. 2004; Heberlein et al.
2004) and can be discriminated from scrambled point-light
displays early in infancy (Simion et al. 2008). The visual
system seems to be particularly tuned for the detection and
analysis of biological motion, even when depicted by such
sparse point-light displays. We therefore hypothesized that
in typically developing children the biological motion in
the pointing gesture may be sufficient for its detection and
analysis.
In contrast, evidence suggesting a partial disruption in
the perception of point-light displays of biological motion
in ASD led us to hypothesize that the movement specific to

123

J Autism Dev Disord (2013) 43:14371446

the pointing gesture may not be sufficient for the perception of pointing in this group (Simmons et al. 2009; Kaiser
and Shiffrar 2009). Although observers with ASD do not
differ from controls in the ability to verbally describe some
actions (e.g. kicking, walking, throwing) depicted by pointlight displays, they are poorer at describing point-light
displays depicting socially meaningful actions such as
emotions (Hubert et al. 2007; Moore et al. 1997; Pavlova
et al. 2001). Children with ASD are also less sensitive at
discriminating point-light biological motion from scrambled motion when briefly presented (Blake et al. 2003) and
when presented with a mask (Annaz et al. 2010), they fail
to show the perceptual advantage for point-light biological
motion versus object motion (Kaiser et al. 2010), and are
less effective at discriminating between biological motion
and mechanical motion (Cook et al. 2009). Although
several studies report no impairments in biological motion
perception in older adolescents or adults with ASD
(Herrington et al. 2007; Murphy et al. 2009; Saygin 2007),
neuroimaging data suggests that even when performance
on the behavioural task is unimpaired, the group with ASD
still show reduced activity, relative to controls, in brain
areas thought to be important for the perception of biological motion (e.g. Superior Temporal SulcusSTSp)
(Freitag et al. 2008; Herrington et al. 2007; Kaiser et al.
2010). Finally, preferential looking tasks have revealed that
young children with ASD do not show the typical orienting
bias to point-light biological motion versus scrambled
point-light displays (Annaz et al. 2011; Klin et al. 2009).
In sum, the questions that we address in this paper are
the following: can the referential information of pointing
be conveyed to typically developing children just from
the movement pattern of the action captured by few point
lights allowing the child to use this information as a cue to
shift attention in anticipation of a forthcoming target? If so,
can children with ASD respond to these point-light pointing displays in a similar way to typically developing
children?
We used the Posner cueing paradigm (Posner 1980) to
assess whether point-light displays of the pointing gesture
could provoke a referential response of orientation of
attention. Posners orienting tasks allow experimenters to
measure the attention shifting response. In one of the tasks,
a central cue (e.g. an arrow) indicates the location in the
periphery of a forthcoming target (valid trials) or the
opposite location (invalid trials) and a faster response time
to identify the target on valid versus invalid trials suggests
that the participant has oriented attention in the direction
indicated by the cue. It is also possible to vary the time
delay between cue and target appearance (stimulus onset
asynchrony (SOA)); orienting responses following a short
delay (e.g. 100 ms) suggests an automatic or reflexive
response, whereas a long delay (e.g. 800 ms) provides

J Autism Dev Disord (2013) 43:14371446

some time for participants to prepare and execute a shift of


attention before the target appears, suggesting a more
voluntary orienting of attention. A further feature is that the
ratio of valid versus invalid trials can influence the
expectation that the cue is predictive or not. In studies
where the cue is not predictive (valid on 50 % of trials) or
even counter-predictive (valid on 20 % of trials) the presence of a validity effect confirms that attention shifting is
exogenous or reflexive (Friesen and Kingstone 1998; Senju
et al. 2004). In the present study the central cue was highly
predictive, valid on 80 % of trials; our aim was to test
whether participants could use the point-light display as a
cue to orient attention to the forthcoming target location, an
inability to do so could not be attributed to the unpredictability of the cue using this ratio of valid to invalid trials.
The Posner-style spatial cueing paradigm has been used
previously with eye gaze stimuli as a central cue, usually
consisting of a photograph or cartoon depicting a face with
gaze averted left or right, either looking in the direction of
a forthcoming target or in the opposite direction. When this
type of stimulus is predictive (80 % valid trials) young
adult participants with ASD as well as typically developing
controls display a similar validity effect (being faster to
identify the validly cued versus the invalidly cued target)
demonstrating that they are able to use information from
the eye gaze stimuli as a cue to orient their attention (Ristic
et al. 2002). Non-autistic adults and typically developing
children also show a validity effect when eye gaze cues are
non-predictive and uninformative (50 % valid trials) suggesting that eye gaze stimuli reflexively orient attention in
the viewer (Friesen and Kingstone 1998; Driver et al. 1999;
Langton and Bruce 2000; Ristic et al. 2002; Swettenham
et al. 2003; Hood et al. 1998; Farroni et al. 2000). The
evidence for reflexive eye gaze cueing in individuals with
ASD is somewhat more equivocal. Although the majority
of studies have demonstrated reflexive cueing in response
to gaze in ASD (Swettenham et al. 2003; Senju et al. 2004;
Vlamings et al. 2005; Kylliainen and Hietanen 2004;
Chawarska et al. 2003), other studies have reported no
reflexive gaze cueing effect, for example when schematic
faces are used (Ristic et al. 2005) or when infants have
been tested (Johnson et al. 2005). It has also been argued
that gaze cues may be processed differently in ASD, with
evidence of reflexive cueing effects that are equivalent for
eye gaze and arrows only in the ASD group (Senju et al.
2004; Vlamings et al. 2005).
In the present study, as a first step in understanding what
components of the pointing gesture are important for its
perception, we simply wanted to establish whether a biological motion display of the pointing gesture that was
highly predictive (80 % valid) would be sufficient to cue
participants to shift their attention in the direction of the
point. In order to test whether any orienting response was

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specific to the particular configuration and timing of the


biological motion involved in the pointing gesture rather
than to motion in general, we included a control condition
in which we used a phase scrambled version of the pointlight pointing display. Using this method of scrambling the
biological motion display each individual dot maintains the
same direction and velocity of movement while being
displayed temporally out of phase with one another (Blake
et al. 2003). The phase scrambled stimulus therefore no
longer contains the biological motion information of
pointing gesture, but does involve the same overall motion
of each individual dot. Our reasoning was that if participants orient attention only to the biological motion display
and not to the phase scrambled display, this would suggest
that they respond to something specific about the configuration of the biological motion display of the pointing
gesture, rather than any individual movement of a dot in
the direction of the target. In effect, this phase scrambled
version was also valid on 80 % of the trials in the sense that
the overall movement of the individual dots continued to be
directed toward the target location on 80 % of trials. In a
third condition, which was always shown last, we presented
the original normal video of a person pointing, from which
the point-light displays had been constructed. This allowed
us to examine whether the full display of the pointing
gesture resulted in the viewer orienting attention in the
direction indicated by the point, better than when they
observed the abstracted point-light display.
A number of previous studies have suggested that
individuals with ASD have a general impairment in shifting attention (Townsend et al. 1996; Wainwright-Sharp and
Bryson 1993, 1996) although this remains under debate
(see Burack et al. [1997] for a review, and [Pruett et al.
2011] for recent counter-evidence). One proposed explanation for such an impairment has been a specific difficulty
disengaging attention from a central fixation (Casey et al.
1993; Landry and Bryson 2004). To avoid this potential
confound, in all our conditions we offset the central cue
before the onset of the target. Thus, any differences in
attentional orienting to the pointing displays shown by
those with ASD could not be attributed to an inability to
disengage from the cue.
Our prediction was that typically developing children
would show a validity effect in response to the biological
motion point-light pointing display but not the phase
scrambled point-light display, whereas children with ASD
would show no evidence of a validity effect on either
display. With respect to the video of the pointing gesture,
we predicted that both the typically developing children
and the children with ASD would shift their attention in the
direction indicated by the gesture. Previous studies suggest
that the ability to follow joint attention gestures such as
pointing or head turns emerges in infancy in typical

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J Autism Dev Disord (2013) 43:14371446

The study was conducted using stimuli presented on an HP


laptop running custom software written with Microsoft
Visual Basic and presented on a 15-inch flat-panel LCD
screen (1,024 9 768 pixel resolution; 60 Hz frame rate).
Viewing distance was 40 cm.

display, and (3) the original video of a person pointing used


to generate the above point-light stimuli. Each display
lasted for 2 s. The video pointer consisted of a person
pointing across his body with outstretched arm and protruding index finger (see Fig. 1). The act of pointing also
involved some rotation of the body and a slight head turn
(i.e. there was movement throughout the body during
pointing). The video sequence was flipped 90 degrees to
create a point to the right as well as to the left.
Point-light displays (Johansson 1973) were created by
marking 13 signal dots onto the joints of the pointing figure
on the video (1 head, 2 shoulders, 2 elbows, 2 hands, 2
hips, 2 knees and 2 feet). The changing co-ordinates of
these dots were then transformed into a computer-presented moving point-light display using Visual Basic. This
point-light pointer display was flipped 90 degrees to create
the corresponding point-left and point-right displays. The
phase-scrambled point-light display was created by taking
the trajectory of each dot from the original point-light
pointer display and playing them temporally out of phase
with each other (hence controlling for display density,
direction and velocity of movement). Each point-light
animation was presented in the centre of the screen as
white dots on a black panel (17.1 9 17.1 visual angle).
There was also a fixation cross (0.5 cm 9 0.5 cm) and two
targets, an image of a rabbit or a frog (1.5 cm 9 1.5 cm)
which could appear either bottom left or bottom right of the
computer screen at the two locations referred to by the left
and right point (see Fig. 2). In total then, including the 90
degree flipped stimuli, there were 6 sequences; 2 biological
motion point-light displays, 2 phase scrambled point-light
displays, and 2 full video pointing sequences. These all
originated from a single video sequence of a single actor
performing a pointing gesture.

Stimuli

Procedure

Three types of stimuli were created: (1) a biological motion


point-light display of a person pointing, which retains some
limited information about the structure and movement of
the pointing gesture, (2) a phase-scrambled point-light
display of a person pointing which involves the same
overall direction, magnitude and velocity of movement of
each point-light but without being a biological motion

Each child was tested separately in a quiet room in the


school. They were asked if they would like to play a
computer game in which they had to identify which animal
appears (frog or a rabbit). Half the time a rabbit would
appear and half the time a frog would appear. Each child
was asked to first look at a fixation cross which would be
replaced by a moving display in the centre of the screen

development, and although delayed, eventually emerges in


children with ASD and is related to both chronological age
and mental age (Camaioni et al. 1997, 2003; Carpenter
et al. 2002; Leekam et al. 1998).

Method
Participants
Fourteen children with ASD and fourteen typically developing children took part in the study. All participants in the
ASD group had received a formal clinical diagnosis of
ASD based on ADOS scores and criteria listed in DSM-IV
(American Psychiatric Association 1994) from a trained,
independent clinician and were attending a specialist
school that required a formal diagnosis of ASD for entry.
Verbal and non-verbal abilities were assessed using British
Picture Vocabulary Scale (Dunn et al. 1997) and the pattern construction task from the British Ability Scales
(BAS: Elliott et al. 1997) respectively. The groups were
matched for chronological age (CA), verbal mental age
(VMA) and non-verbal mental age (NVMA): CA,
t(28) = 1.62, p = 0.12, VMA t(28) = 1.57, p = 0.13;
NVMA, t(28) = 0.67, p = 0.51. Table 1. reports participant details.
Apparatus

Table 1 Descriptive statistics


for each group

123

Group

Statistic

Age
(years:months)

BPVS (age equivalent


years:months)

BAS pattern construction


(age equivalent years:months)

ASD (n = 14)

Mean

9:7

7:5

9:6

SD

1:6

1:4

2:1

Control (n = 14)

Mean
SD

8:6
1:9

8:6
2:2

8:10
2:3

J Autism Dev Disord (2013) 43:14371446

1441

Start of Point

Completion of Point

stimulus offset. Within each block of 50 trials the central


pointing stimulus indicated the correct target location
(validly cued trials) 80 % of the time, and the incorrect
location (invalidly cued trials) 20 % of the time. The target
remained on the screen until the child made a response. Each
response was followed by an inter-trial interval of 1,000 ms,
and then the fixation point appeared again marking the
beginning of a new trial. The direction of point (left or right)
and length of SOA (100 or 800 ms) were randomly generated
but equi-probable in appearance, and the location of the
rabbit and frog targets was also counterbalanced. Figure 2
illustrates the sequence of events for an example trial.

Fig. 1 Example frames from the video pointing condition

Results

The percentage of correctly identified targets was high


for both groups (mean overall percentage correct:
ASD = 97.04, TD = 97.42) and there was no significant
difference between the groups on any condition (point-light
pointer, scrambled point-light pointer and video pointer)
(all F \ 1).
Analysis of Reaction Time Data

Fig. 2 Time course of experimental trials. This example illustrates


the point-light pointer condition

which they should also look at; either an image of a frog or


a rabbit would then appear, either in the bottom left or
bottom right of the screen. The children were told to press
one of two keys (z or an m), as quickly as possible as soon
as they could tell whether the animal on the screen was a
frog (z) or a rabbit (m). Each child received 10 practice
trials in which feedback was given and the experimenter
checked carefully that the child had understood the task
before proceeding.
There were three conditions (point-light pointer,
scrambled point-light pointer, video pointer) each consisting of 50 trials. The video pointer condition was always
presented last and the order of presentation of the other two
conditions was counterbalanced.
On each trial a central cross appeared as a fixation point
for 1,000 ms or 2,000 ms. The central stimulus (one of the
three pointing conditions) appeared on the screen for
2,000 ms, then one of two targets (frog or rabbit) appeared
bottom left or bottom right either 100 or 800 ms after

Mean median reaction times to identify the target were calculated for each condition (point-light pointer, scrambled
point-light pointer and video pointer), SOA (100 and 800 ms)
and validity of cue (valid and invalid). The mean median
reaction times for each group are shown in Fig. 3a, b, c.
We first analysed the data for the three conditions
together using mixed analysis of variance (ANOVA) with
one between-subjects factor of group (ASD or typically
developing) and three within-subjects factors of condition
(point-light pointer, scrambled pointer, video pointer),
validity of cue (valid or invalid) and SOA (100 or 800 ms).
The ANOVA revealed a main effect of validity
(F (1,26) = 12.2, p = 0.002) indicating that overall participants responded faster when they were validly cued by
the pointer displays than when they were invalidly cued.
There was also a main effect of SOA (F (1,26) = 39.7,
p \ 0.001) indicating that all participants were faster to
respond to the target appearing after the 800 ms delay than
they were to those appearing after 100 ms delay; and there
was a main effect of group (F(1,26) = 8.47, p = 0.007)
indicating that overall, the typically developing children
were faster to respond than the children with ASD.
There was also a condition by validity interaction
(F (1,26) = 15.5, p \ 0.001). This interaction indicated
that the size of the validity effect may differ depending on
condition. We therefore explored each of the conditions
separately using mixed ANOVA with one betweensubjects factor (ASD or typically developing) and two

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J Autism Dev Disord (2013) 43:14371446

after 100 ms delay. Analysis of the scrambled point-light


pointer condition revealed only a main effect of SOA
(F (1,26) = 7.7, p = 0.01) indicating that participants were
faster to respond to the target appearing after the 800 ms
delay than to those appearing after 100 ms delay, and no
evidence of a validity effect. The analysis of the point-light
pointer condition however, revealed a main effect of SOA
(F (1,26) = 7.184, p = 0.13) indicating that participants
were faster to respond to the target appearing after the
800 ms delay than to those appearing after 100 ms delay, and
a group by validity interaction approaching significance
(F (1,26) = 3.1, p = 0.08), which suggested that the two
groups might differ in size of validity effect on this condition.
Because this was our a priori prediction we carried out
planned comparisons for the two groups separately. This
revealed a significant validity effect for the typically developing children at 800 ms SOA (F (1,13) = 5.1, p = 0.04)
but not at 100 ms SOA (F(1,13) = 0.58, p = 0.46). The
same comparisons for the ASD group revealed no significant
validity effect at either SOA.

Discussion

Fig. 3 Mean median target identification response times for each


group following a valid or invalid cue (100 or 800 ms SOA), when
the cue was: a the point-light pointing stimulus, b the scrambled
point-light stimulus, or c the full video stimulus

within-subjects factors of validity of cue (valid or invalid)


and SOA (100 or 800 ms).
Analysis of the video pointing condition revealed there
was a main effect of validity (F(1,26) = 26.7, p \ 001) and a
main effect of SOA (F (1,26) = 27.9, p \ 0.001). As can be
seen in Fig. 3c both groups of children were significantly
faster to respond to validly cued targets than those which
were invalidly cued, and faster to respond to the target
appearing after the 800 ms delay than to those appearing

123

The findings demonstrate that typically developing children orient attention in response to point-light displays
depicting the biological motion of a pointing gesture, but
not phase scrambled point-light displays containing the
same velocity and direction of movement. In contrast,
children with ASD do not orient attention in response to
either type of point-light display. When the original video
of the person pointing was displayed, both groups used this
cue to orient their attention to the location of the forthcoming target, producing similar validity effects.
The results provide support for the claim that the perception of biological motion holds a special status in the
visual perception of typical observers (Johansson 1973;
Pinto and Shiffrar 2009) and show that the biological
dynamics of the pointing movement, in the absence of any
additional morphological features, are sufficient to have a
referential effect in typically developing children. The lack
of validity effect in response to the phase scrambled display suggests that it is not just the general direction of dot
movement that typically developing children are responding to, but something more specific about the configuration
of the biological motion in the pointing gesture.
It is unlikely that a general impairment in attention
shifting can explain the lack of orienting to biological
motion point-light pointing displays in the ASD group (for
review, see Burack et al. 1997), since the same children
successfully oriented attention in response to the full
pointing video. In the video children view a range of cues
in the pointing gesture, including arm direction, extended

J Autism Dev Disord (2013) 43:14371446

index finger, body posture, head turn and eye gaze. Whilst
we cannot determine which of these cues the children with
ASD were responding to, it is clear from this data that they
do orient their attention in response to the central cue and
can do so quite rapidly (even at 100 ms SOA), suggesting
that the general ability to orient attention in response to the
pointing cue is intact. We were also careful to design the
task so that the central cue did not remain on the screen
when the target appeared, thus the differences in attentional
orienting to the point-light display could not be attributed
to an impairment in the ability to disengage from the
central cue (Casey et al. 1993; Landry and Bryson 2004).
It is also doubtful that a general impairment in the
ability to perceive biological motion from point-light displays can account for the findings, as previous studies have
shown that when point-light displays depicting simple
human actions are presented for relatively long durations
(e.g. 2 s) children with ASD can name them as well as
controls (Hubert et al. 2007; Moore et al. 1997; Parron
et al. 2008). To confirm this, we conducted a brief followup study with the same participants, 2 months after the
original testing, examining whether the children with ASD
could describe point-light displays depicting simple actions
as well as one depicting object movement. We presented
four types of point-light displays, in random order
(throwing, kicking, pointing, a tilted spinning topand
their mirror image version, making 8 displays in total),
asking children to describe what they had seen after each
display. T-tests revealed no significant differences between
the groups in describing any of the stimuli. Both groups
were equally successful in describing throwing, kicking
and the spinning top (see Table 2), but strikingly, neither
group was as successful at describing the point-light display depicting the pointing gesture, even though all the
children were able to describe the full video as a pointing
action when it was subsequently presented. That is, when
we ask children to verbally report what they see there is no
difference between the groups, whereas using the Posner
paradigm we have shown a difference between the groups
in attentional response to the biological motion of the
pointing gesture, even if the typical children did not
explicitly identify it as an instance of pointing. Despite not
being able to describe what the biological motion pointlight display depicted, typically developing children still
oriented attention in response to it. One possibility is that
that typically developing participants may have perceived
something goal-directed and referential in the point-light
display without recognizing it specifically as pointing. It
would be interesting in future experiments to test whether
other biological motion displays, recognized or not recognized (e.g. kicking, reaching) produce an orienting
response in the direction of the action even though this
action is not necessarily referential.

1443

Why do typically developing children respond to the


biological motion point-light display, whereas children
with ASD do not? One possibility is that the perceptual
processes underlying pointing perception may be different
in the two populations. Children with ASD may have
learned to respond to a more specific configuration of
pointing, whereas typical children may have abstracted a
more general concept of pointing that can be activated by a
variety of cues, among them the relatively impoverished
information provided by a point-light display. This also
means that typical children will follow a point in the
absence of information about gaze, hand shape, or context,
whereas children with ASD may need more components to
be present to elicit a point-following response. The results
may therefore reflect a problem in ASD with an aspect of
referential signalingthe perception of the referential
Gestalt-like quality of signals like pointing independently
of their surface appearance (see Gomez 2009, on intentional Gestalten). This would be comparable to the problems people with ASD have making intentional
interpretations of moving shapes in the Heider and Simmel
(1944) paradigm (Bowler and Thommen 2000; Castelli
et al. 2002) in which quite impoverished information only
involving movement is routinely given a rich intentional
interpretation by typical observers.
Another possibility is that rather than being perceived
specifically as a pointing gesture, the biological motion
display is perceived as an undefined goal-directed or
intentional action. This would explain why the typical
children were unable to explicitly identify the point-light
display as a pointing gesture despite having their attention
correctly cued by it. For the typically developing children
only a minimal signal would be required to perceive goal
directedness in biological action, whereas children with
ASD would need more information. According to this
account the typically developing children would shift their
attention toward the goal area as part of an attempt to
interpret the goal-directed action and the effect of this shift
is shown up in RT, even if their interpretation is unsuccessful. Although given enough information, individuals
with ASD can perceive goal-directed action (Castelli et al.
2002), they would be less likely than controls to spontaneously interpret minimal point-light displays as goal
directed and to shift attention accordingly.
In this interpretation the configuration and dynamics of
biological motion contains enough information to initially
identify an action as goal directed even if the action itself is
not precisely identified. Our findings with ASD might
therefore have more far-reaching implications, as they
could reflect a more general inability to respond to goaldirectedness or intentionality in basic motion cues (e.g.
from eye gaze, head turns etc.), which could contribute to
problems with social attention.

123

1444

J Autism Dev Disord (2013) 43:14371446

Table 2 Mean number of correct descriptions of point light displays


(PLD) and video by children with ASD and typically developing
children (from a maximum score of 2 correct)
Type of
display

Throwing
PLD

Kicking
PLD

Pointing
PLD

Spinning
top PLD

Pointing
video

ASD
(n = 14)

1.57

1.86

0.14

1.79

2.0

Control
(n = 14)

1.79

1.92

0.28

1.86

2.0

There is strong evidence that the observation of


anothers goal directed action, such as eye gaze, produces a
reflexive orienting response in typical viewers and, at least
later in development, in children with ASD (Nation and
Penny 2008). What is still unclear is whether such a
reflexive response occurs in children with ASD for the
same reason as it does in typically developing children. Is
there any evidence that responses to pointing might also be
reflexive, at least in typically developing children? Our
study was not set up to examine the specific mechanisms of
attention shifting in response to the pointing stimulus, but
we do note that the validity effects observed in response to
the whole pointing video occurred at both 100 and 800 ms
SOA, the rapid response in the first case being consistent
with a more reflexive response, whereas orienting to the
biological motion point-light pointing display only occurred at 800 ms SOA. We note also that the video contained
seen gaze as a cue as well as pointing. In order to examine
the attentional effects further it would be necessary to
present the central cue as non-predictive, to present the
pointing gesture in the absence of gaze cues and to include
a non-social stimulus as a cue.
In sum, our findings show for the first time that the
biological motion in a pointing gesture, without further
morphological and contextual information, can produce a
referential response in typically developing children, even
in the absence of explicit identification of the gesture,
whereas children with ASD do not respond to the biological motion stimulus despite intact ability to react to the
complete original video. This research furthers our understanding of the perception of pointing, and contributes to a
growing body of research examining basic perceptual and
attentional impairments in ASD which could contribute to
the early lack of engagement in joint attention and social
attention in general, which is so critical to the downstream
development of social communication skills.
Acknowledgments This research was supported by an ESRC Grant
(RES 00023 1148) on Perception of Biological Motion in Autism
and by a European Commission, NEST PATHFINDER project
REFCOM (012787),The Origins of Referential Communication. We
gratefully acknowledge the efforts of staff and pupils at schools in
London and the Resources for Autism charity who participated in the
research.

123

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