Objective measurement of head movement differences in children with and without autism spectrum disorder

Katherine B. Martin, Zakia Hammal, Gang Ren, Jeffrey F. Cohn, Justine Cassell, Mitsunori Ogihara, Jennifer C. Britton, Anibal Gutierrez, Daniel S. Messinger

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

27 Scopus citations


Background: Deficits in motor movement in children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) have typically been characterized qualitatively by human observers. Although clinicians have noted the importance of atypical head positioning (e.g. social peering and repetitive head banging) when diagnosing children with ASD, a quantitative understanding of head movement in ASD is lacking. Here, we conduct a quantitative comparison of head movement dynamics in children with and without ASD using automated, person-independent computer-vision based head tracking (Zface). Because children with ASD often exhibit preferential attention to nonsocial versus social stimuli, we investigated whether children with and without ASD differed in their head movement dynamics depending on stimulus sociality. Methods: The current study examined differences in head movement dynamics in children with (n = 21) and without ASD (n = 21). Children were video-recorded while watching a 16-min video of social and nonsocial stimuli. Three dimensions of rigid head movement - pitch (head nods), yaw (head turns), and roll (lateral head inclinations) - were tracked using Zface. The root mean square of pitch, yaw, and roll was calculated to index the magnitude of head angular displacement (quantity of head movement) and angular velocity (speed). Results: Compared with children without ASD, children with ASD exhibited greater yaw displacement, indicating greater head turning, and greater velocity of yaw and roll, indicating faster head turning and inclination. Follow-up analyses indicated that differences in head movement dynamics were specific to the social rather than the nonsocial stimulus condition. Conclusions: Head movement dynamics (displacement and velocity) were greater in children with ASD than in children without ASD, providing a quantitative foundation for previous clinical reports. Head movement differences were evident in lateral (yaw and roll) but not vertical (pitch) movement and were specific to a social rather than nonsocial condition. When presented with social stimuli, children with ASD had higher levels of head movement and moved their heads more quickly than children without ASD. Children with ASD may use head movement to modulate their perception of social scenes.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number14
JournalMolecular Autism
Issue number1
StatePublished - Feb 27 2018


  • Autism spectrum disorder
  • Head movement
  • Motor movement
  • Social processing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Molecular Biology
  • Developmental Neuroscience
  • Developmental Biology
  • Psychiatry and Mental health


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