Reduced Direct Eye Contact and Autism Spectrum Disorders: Reduced Orientation or Active Avoidance?

Diminished social orientation and reduced direct eye contact with other people are well known symptoms of people with Autism Spectrum Disorders. A recent study asked if the reduced eye contact is due to reduced social orientation towards the eyes or an increase in active avoidance.

(The study “Atypical reflexive gaze patterns on emotional faces in autism spectrum disorders” was published September 15, 2010 in The Journal of Neuroscience.)

Participants looked at neutral, happy, fearful faces with their gaze initially focused on the eyes or the mouth. Eye movement was recorded and the participants were asked to report the emotional category of the face.

Reduced direct eye contact in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders was confirmed. In addition, a significant correlation between the severity of an individual’s social impairments and their gaze pattern was observed. Participants with Autism Spectrum Disorders who were better at correctly classifying emotion also had a greater preference for looking at the eye region.

When the researchers looked at how fast individuals redirected their gaze they found that the individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders moved their gaze away from eye contact faster than control subjects. This is suggestive of an avoidance mechanism active in individuals with Autism Spectrum Disorders.

In summary, it seems that those with Autism Spectrum Disorders show both reduced social orientation towards the eyes and an increase in active avoidance of eye contact. It’ll be important for future research to try to define specific brain mechanisms underlying each of these characteristic symptoms.

Other related blog posts:

Autism and the Brain: Recent Results from Brain Imaging Studies