People with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) are characterized by impairments in social and communicative behavior and a restricted range of interests and behaviors (DSM-5, 2013). An overarching hypothesis is that the brains of people with ASD have abnormal representations of what is salient, with consequences for attention that are reflected in eye movements, learning, and behavior. In our prior studies, we have shown that people with autism have atypical face processing and atypical social attention. On the one hand, people with autism show reduced specificity in emotion judgment (Wang and Adolphs, Neuropsychologia, 2017), which might be due to abnormal amygdala responses to eyes vs. mouth (Rutishauser et al., Neuron, 2013). On the other hand, people with autism show atypical bottom-up attention to social stimuli during free viewing of natural scene images (Wang et al., Neuron, 2015), impaired top-down attention to social targets during visual search (Wang et al., Neuropsychologia, 2014), and abnormal photos taken for other people, a combination of both bottom-up and top-down attention (Wang et al., Curr Biol, 2016). However, the underlying mechanisms for these profound social dysfunctions in autism remain largely unknown.

Our lab focuses on two core social dysfunctions in autism: impaired face processing and impaired visual attention. The central hypothesis is that people with autism have altered saliency representation compared to controls. A key neural structure hypothesized to underlie the deficits in autism is the amygdala. Using a powerful combination of neuroscience techniques including single-neuron recording, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), and amygdala lesion patients, which converged on the amygdala, as well as high-resolution eye tracking and computational modeling approaches suitable for big data analysis, we investigate the following questions:

(1) What are the neural underpinnings for aberrant neural face representation in autism?

(2) What are the individual differences in autism when viewing natural scenes and faces? What are the underlying psychological and personality factors? Can we do large-population screening of autism given such individual differences?

(3) What are the neural mechanisms for goal-directed and stimulus-driven social attention and is there a difference in people with autism?

(4) Can we use deep learning and computer vision to fully capture autism behavior? Can we design an efficient tool to facilitate autism early diagnosis?