The Perception of Animacy and Biological Motion
How do people know whether an object is alive? We study the motion cues of animacy, asking what cues people use to perceive that something is animate. We have found that speed matters, but perceived speed matters more (Szego & Rutherford, 2007; 2008). Evidence in our lab suggests that children with autism do not find animacy detection as easy and automatic as typically developing children do, but that they can learn to distinguish motion cues of animacy (Rutherford, Pennington and Rogers, 2006). We use point-light walker stimuli to test whether people with autism can perceive simple actions based on these rudimentary cues to biological motion cues (Rutherford & Troje, 2011; Rutherford, Trivedi, Bennett & Sekuler, in prep).
The Perception of Emotional Facial Expressions
How do people with and without autism perceive emotional facial expressions? We now know that people with autism use a more rule-based strategy for emotion perception, rather than the template based strategy that others use (Rutherford and McIntosh, 2006). Some people have suggested that those with autism don’t use visual information from the eyes, but will use the mouth preferentially. We have found evidence that people with autism use the eyes like typical people do, using simple discrimination (Rutherford, Clements and Sekuler, 2007), configural processing (Nishimura, Rutherford and Maurer, 2007 and eye-tracking (Rutherford and Towns, 2008).
The Categorization and Function of Emotions
We take an evolutionary and functional approach to the study of emotion perception. We want to know what categories of emotions people have, whether these categories are the same in autism, and what the relationship between the categories is. We know from our recent research that people with autism do have emotion categories (Homer and Rutherford, 2004). We also know that in typical adults, the relationship between the emotion categories is predicted by their function (Rutherford and Chattha, 2005). Recent work has shown that various methods, including the Visual Expectation Paradigm, can be used to reveal stable and reliable category boundaries (Cheal & Rutherford, 2015).
Early Detection of Autism
One prominent question in autism research is what are the very early signs of autism. We know that early diagnosis and early treatment lead to improved prognosis. In an ongoing, project, using eye tracking technology, we are recruiting and testing very young siblings of children with autism in order to see whether early social perception can be used to predict a later diagnosis of autism. We observe these infants who are at risk for autism with the aim of detecting the very earliest correlates of a later autism diagnosis and social cognitive development. This has obvious clinical applications as well as having the potential to answer important theoretical questions.
The Psychology of Peace
We know that adults have dedicated cognitive processes that allow for altruism and reasoning about moral judgment. Psychological processes that support moral behavior are part of a suite of social cognitive adaptations that allow us to be a large-group social species, but these processes have only recently been explored empirically. We are exploring developing psychological machinery underlying prosocial and moral behaviour. The key to the puzzle is understanding the psychology that motivates aggressive and cooperative decisions.
Brain Response to Emotional and Social Stimuli
Using Diffuse Optical Tomography, we can measure brain activity in adults and children. We use this to measure the brain’s reaction to social and emotional stimuli. This can tell us what parts of the brain are responsive in those with and without autism, so that we can compare these two groups. We can also use this technology to test whether different people’s brains categorize emotions the same way, and respond similarly to emotionally provocative scenarios.