Young children with autism do not avoid eye contact on purpose but miss the significance of social information in others’ eyes, scientists have found.
While reduced eye contact is a well-known symptom of autism used in early screeners and diagnostic instruments, why children with autism look less at other people’s eyes has not been known. Researchers at Marcus Autism Centre, Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta and Emory University School of Medicine in the US, helped in answering these question.
“This is important because we are disentangling very different understandings of autism,” said Jennifer Moriuchi, a graduate student at Emory University. “Depending on why you think children with autism are making less eye contact, you might have different approaches to treatment and different ideas about the brain basis of autism,” said Moriuchi. “Drug treatments and behavioural interventions are already being developed and tested on the basis of these different explanations,” she said. “By clarifying which explanation is correct, we can make sure that we are addressing the correct underlying concern,” Moriuchi said.
Two explanations for reduced eye contact have been proposed. One explanation holds that children with autism avoid eye contact because they find it stressful and negative. The other holds that children with autism look less at other people’s eyes because the social cues from the eyes are not perceived as particularly meaningful or important. The new research, conducted on the day when children were first diagnosed, shows that young children with autism do not actively avoid eye contact, and it confirms that other people’s eyes are not aversive to young children with autism.
Children with autism look less at the eyes because they appear to miss the social significance of eye contact, researchers said. Researchers studied how 86 two-year-old children with and without autism paid attention to other people’s eyes. Children with autism watched a series of carefully made videos. “Before each video, we flashed a small picture to capture the child’s attention, and when they looked to where the picture had been, they found that they were either looking directly at another person’s eyes or looking away from the eyes,” said Moriuchi.
“When we did this repeatedly, we found that young children with autism continued to look straight at the eyes. Like their peers without autism, they did not look away from the eyes or try to avoid the eyes in any way,” she said. However, when varying levels of socially meaningful eye contact were presented, children with autism looked less at other people’s eyes than their peers without autism. The study appears in the American Journal of Psychiatry.