Why do children with ASD show reduced levels of eye contact? Is it because they have difficulty understanding the meaning conveyed by eyes? Or because they experience direct eye contact as aversive or over-arousing? A new study led by Warren Jones at the Marcus Autism Center in Atlanta sought to answer this question by studying toddlers with ASD, typical development, and developmental delays. The researchers “cued” the children to look at different parts of a woman’s face during a video in which she spoke in an emotionally engaging manner.
Results revealed that the toddlers with ASD spent less attention looking at the woman’s eyes during the “free viewing” portion of the experiment. However, when cued to look at her eyes, their performance was similar to that of the neurotypical group, in that they shifted their gaze toward the eyes as rapidly, and did not shift their gaze away any sooner. This pattern suggests that toddlers with ASD may look at eyes less often because of “indifference” rather than “discomfort.” However, as the authors note, this study does not discount the self-reports of many adults with ASD, who describe discomfort and anxiety associated with direct eye contact. Additional research is needed to further understand this phenomenon. To learn more about the study, check out Spectrum New’s article.