Explaining autistic persons’ reluctance to engage in direct eye contact

26 Jun

Why do persons with autism have difficulty engaging in eye contact?

by Lirio Sobrevinas-Covey, Ph.D.

Limited engagement in eye contact is commonly seen among persons with autism. It is widely considered to demonstrate the individuals’ lack of social interest and indifference – a core criterion of autism spectrum disorder.

A study from the Athinoula A Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in Massachusetts suggests the cause is neurological based behavior rather than an indication of social indifference.

Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) techniques to compare responses of persons with autism versus non-autistic controls to faces conveying emotions, the researchers found an uncomfortable and stressful over-stimulation experienced by the autistic persons, but not the controls, when asked to gaze at the eye –region. This differential reaction did not occur in the free-viewing condition – when gaze is not focused on the eye-region.

The authors state that – “our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from over-activation in a particular part of the brain.”

Says Nouchine Hadjikhani, an associate professor of Radiology at Medical School and the lead researcher – “forcing children with autism to look into someone’s eyes in behavioral therapy may create a lot of anxiety for them. An approach involving slow habituation to eye contact may help them overcome this overreaction and be able to handle eye contact in the long run, thereby avoiding the cascading effects that this eye-avoidance has on the development of the social brain.”

Reference: “Look me in the eyes: constraining gaze in the eye-region provokes abnormally high subcortical activation in autism”, Nouchine Hadjikhani, Jakob Åsberg Johnels, Nicole R. Zürcher, Amandine Lassalle, Quentin Guillon, Loyse Hippolyte, Eva Billstedt, Noreen Ward, Eric Lemonnier & Christopher Gillberg, Scientific Reports, doi: 10.1038/s41598-017-03378-5, published online 9 June 2017.

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