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How Can We Better Understand Social Difficulty in Childhood Cancer Survivors?

Published on February 10, 2020 in Cornerstone Blog · Last updated 4 months ago


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Eye-tracking technology suggests some pediatric brain tumor survivors share similarities in social attention to individuals with ASD.

The findings:

Pediatric brain tumor survivors showed similar patterns of visual social attention to individuals with autism spectrum disorder (ASD), looking less at faces during a social play paradigm than typically developing peers, according to a new research study. The researchers study used eye-tracking technology typically used in ASD research to compare visual social attention among these groups.

Why it matters:

Researchers continuously search for ways to improve quality of life for children and teens who survive cancer; however, not much is known about why survivors of pediatric brain tumors often experience social difficulties, including fewer friendships, greater social isolation, and deficits in facial expression recognition. As the first evidence of its kind to show disrupted social attention in pediatric brain tumor survivors, the study offers a novel way to think about social difficulties and may help guide the development of interventions to improve social adjustment.

Who conducted the study:

A Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia team from the Center for Childhood Cancer Research and the Center for Autism Research collaborated to conduct the study. Matthew Hocking, PhD, psychologist in CHOP’s Center for Childhood Cancer Research, led the research.

How they did it:

Ninety age, gender, and IQ-matched youth participated in the study, including pediatric brain tumor survivors who were at least five years from diagnosis and two years from the completion of tumor-directed therapy. The researchers recorded patterns in the participants’ eye gaze as they watched videos of children engaging in interactive or parallel play, an established social play paradigm.

Quick thoughts

“While we know pediatric brain tumor survivors experience challenges in social functioning, we don’t fully understand the mechanisms behind these difficulties, and we don’t have great ways of improving outcomes,” Dr. Hocking said. “Our work suggests that survivors may be missing important social information during interactions because they are looking at faces less than their peers. This may explain why they tend to be isolated socially. Hopefully, we can build on these findings to develop effective ways of improving social adjustment in these children.”

Where the study was published:

The findings appeared in Neuropsychology.

Where to learn more:

Learn more about research into life after childhood cancer treatment.