Dr. Elina Birmingham’s Research Aims to Support Students with ASD to Develop Autism Awareness

June 29, 2020

By Shaila Shams and Poh Tan

Dr. Elina Birmingham is an Associate Professor in the Educational Psychology program at the Faculty of Education, Simon Fraser University. Her research examines how children, adolescents, and adults attend to and interpret social information. In addition, she examines how mechanisms of social attention and perception operate differently in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).  Dr. Birmingham’s research uses a variety of methodologies, including behavioural measures of face perception, eye tracking studies of scene perception, automated analysis of facial expressions, and observations of social attention as people interact in the real world. She says a central goal of her research is to determine the real-world implications of how we attend to and perceive information about other people. Her recent work is also examining how atypical sensory processing associated with ASD, like hypersensitivity to sound, interferes with social and learning opportunities for children with ASD, and to find new technological solutions to address sound sensitivity.

Her research is funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) and by Kids Brain Health Network (KBHN).  

In conversation with the Spotlight Series, Dr. Birmingham shared her academic journey, her current research projects and her suggestions for students interested to pursue this field of study.

Please tell us a little bit about yourself, your academic background and your research.

My research interests can be characterized by three paradigm shifts over the years: 1)  A shift from basic research to research that is more applied in nature, 2) A shift from studying solely “typical” cognitive function to being interested in how cognitive processes operate in special populations like autism; 3) A shift from a purely cognitive psychological perspective to situating my research within the field of educational psychology. 

During my undergraduate and master’s research I studied very fundamental aspects of visual attention, such as how we orient to peripheral flashes of light to detect targets at various spatial locations. I became a bit disenchanted by what felt was a lack of connection between these laboratory tasks and how visual attention operates in the real world.  During my doctoral studies at UBC I decided to make a shift towards studying more “everyday” attention, particularly attention to social stimuli in our natural environments.  Our worlds are filled with social stimuli, and we rarely, if ever, go a day without encountering another person.  In these encounters, we rapidly extract important social information, and we use this information to modulate our social interactions.  For example, most of us are fairly seamless at engaging in back-and-forth conversations, using a variety of verbal and nonverbal clues to know when it is our turn to speak vs. listen, or whether the person we are talking to looks interested or bored.  I am very interested in characterizing how we visually attend to other people to extract this information, in particular their faces and eyes, and how these processes contribute to social competence and success in social interactions.

The next shift in my research centered on a burgeoning interest in how social attention differs for people with Autism Spectrum Disorder. People with autism are known to have atypical or reduced interest in other people, and a difficulty with interpreting nonverbal cues (such as what the eyes and facial expressions of others convey about how they feel), and yet reliably measuring these processes in the lab has been tricky at times for the field.  One of my goals, which began during my postdoctoral training at Caltech, and later at SFU, has been to use different paradigms to tap into social attention differences associated with ASD, stemming from laboratory tasks to real world eye tracking studies and video observations of face-to-face interactions. I am also interested in how people with ASD communicate their own emotional states to others through the use of facial expressions. You can visit this link for more information https://www.spectrumnews.org/news/people-autism-sometimes-give-ambiguous-looks/

The final shift has been in situating my research in the field of educational psychology.  Much of the research I do in this context centers around how best to support students with ASD in school and community settings, and incorporating the voices of individuals on the autism spectrum and their families in developing these understandings.  

What called you to pursue the field of cognitive psychology?

In many ways I would say that I stumbled on cognitive psychology as my career path.  In my “pre-med” undergraduate years I was told by a friend that it would be useful to volunteer for a psychology research lab, to get a feel for the sciences beyond the medical field.  So, I looked up a few faculty members in UBC Psychology and decided to “cold-call” Dr. Alan Kingstone, who was later my PhD advisor.  I knocked on his door, rather brazenly asking for a volunteer position in his lab. Given that I had no knowledge of visual attention and had never taken a psychology course, I wouldn’t say I was the best candidate for the position!  However, he gave me a chance, and I am so very grateful for it.  After one semester volunteering in his lab, I was hooked!  Fast forward 20 years, and here we are now. 

Wow! That’s intriguing. Can you please tell us about your current research projects?

I lead three main streams of research.

One of my most exciting projects, funded by Kids Brain Health Network, is an interdisciplinary effort to build a wearable intelligent device to support students with ASD who are hypersensitive to sound.  In partnership with Dr. Arzanpour in Mechatronic Systems Engineering (MSE), and Surrey School District, I am leading a team of researchers in Education (SFU), MSE (SFU), Psychology (SFU), Computing Science (SFU), and Audiology (UBC).  One of the strengths of this project is that from the very beginning, we have been engaging with families, teachers, occupational therapists and other stakeholders to inform the design of the device.  Our current prototype uses machine learning to detect and mask five sounds that are commonly found to be aversive to kids with ASD.

I also conduct basic cognitive psychology research, using eye tracking in 2D and real world environments (see Figure 1), observational studies, studies of face perception (e.g., see Video 1), measurement of children’s facial expression production (see Video 2), and other methods, to better understand mechanisms of social attention (attending to others) and social perception (interpreting people’s emotional and mental states).  I use these same approaches to characterize both typical and atypical social development.  I am becoming increasingly interested in how children and youth with and without autism spectrum disorder attend to, and perceive, social information in natural environments, specifically face-to-face interactions.  

Figure 1.  This image shows a screenshot from a current eye tracking study in which we have children with and without ASD pick their favourite toy from a display, after which they chat about that toy with an adult experimenter.  We intentionally included toys such as trains, dinosaurs and Pokemon characters, which are known to be highly preferred by children with ASD. We are interested in whether or not increasing children’s engagement in a shared object of conversation (by allowing them to choose their favorite toy) increases their social attention (looking at the experimenters’ face) and if this differs for children with ASD.

I am also interested in learning from the perspectives of people with autism to understand how best to support these individuals in their daily lives.  As an example, we regularly engage with SFU students on the Autism Spectrum who are taking part in our SFU peer mentoring program, the Autism Mentorship Initiative (AMI), offered through the Centre for Accessible Learning (CAL). More information can be found on this page- https://www.sfu.ca/students/accessible-learning/programs-and-services/autism-mentorship-program.html.  In our research, we ask students how they are adjusting to university and what areas they feel they need support in, and whether these needs are being met by the mentorship program.  AMI is having a positive effect on university adjustment for students with ASD, but there is much more work to be done to ensure the success of these students, including finding ways to improve their inclusion in co-op placements and volunteer opportunities on campus.  Moving forward, we also want to make a concerted effort to engage individuals with ASD in the design of this research and in the development of support programs for students on the autism spectrum. 

Great to know about these very exciting projects. So, as you mentioned, one of your research projects  focuses on the development of social practices among people with or without Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). Please share with us the implications of this research.

My lab’s focus is on how attention and perception unfold in laboratory and everyday environments, and how these processes play out in social interactions and may impact participation in learning and social settings.  This research has implications for theories of attention, as well as more applied goals like supporting students in inclusive settings.

What would you like to suggest about the inclusion of learners with ASD in educational settings?

ASD is extremely complex and represents a wide spectrum of strengths, challenges and other characteristics that may affect learning and social participation.  There is no one-size-fits-all approach to supporting students with ASD, and therefore supports and strategies need to be tailored to the individual.  It is definitely a mistake to assume that just because a student falls within a particular “designation”, that this categorical information somehow captures all that one needs to know about how to support that student in their learning and social development.  Also, given that social interactions are a two-way street, it is important to focus both on supporting the social skills of students with ASD while simultaneously working towards improving autism awareness and peer acceptance of neurodiversity.

What would you like to say to the future graduate students who are interested in this field?

Autism research has exploded in the past few decades, and whether you are approaching the issue from a research perspective, or an applied/ practical perspective, it is exciting to think that we will be seeing more and more research findings that can help us understand how best to support individuals with ASD. As for the field of cognitive psychology, I believe that having a foundational understanding of attention, perception, thinking, language, and memory, is important for teachers supporting all kinds of learners.  The Educational Psychology graduate program covers some of these key topics and many others.  If you are interested in learning more, visit https://www.sfu.ca/education/gs/degreediploma/masters/edpsych.html

Video 1. Here, participants explore a blurry face with a mouse-controlled window that reveals detailed information in the face.  Their task is to determine the facial expression of the person beneath the blur, as quickly as they can. 

1) In research with neurotypical children, we found an age-related increase in attention to the left eye emerged at age 11–12 years and reached significance in adulthood. This left-eye bias is consistent with previous eye tracking research and findings of a perceptual bias for the left side of faces. These results suggest that a strategic attentional bias to the left eye begins to emerge at age 11–12 years and is likely established sometime in adolescence.


Birmingham, E., Meixner, T., Iarocci, G., Kanan, C., Smilek, D., & Tanaka, J. (2013). The Moving Window Technique: a window into developmental changes in attention during facial emotion recognition. Child Development, 84(4): 1407-24, doi: 10.1111/cdev.12039.

Video 2.  This video depicts software we use in our lab from a company called iMotions, which automatically detects facial expressions of observers as they watch emotionally arousing video clips.  We used this technique to show that facial expressiveness is associated with individual differences in alexithymia (difficulties interpreting one’s own feeling states). That is, higher levels of alexithymic traits were associated with lower levels of facial expression, and this was true for both neurotypical children and children with ASD.  Surprisingly, autistic traits showed no relationship with the amount of facial expression production.


Trevisan, D.A., Bowering, M., & Birmingham, E. (2016).  Alexithymia, but not autism spectrum disorder, may be related to the production of emotional facial expressions. Molecular Autism, 7:46, 1-12, doi: 10.1186/s13229-016-0108-6.