Study rebuts the gaze aversion hypothesis in autism

Children with autism spectrum disorder (ASD) do not avoid eye contact any more than typically developing children, according to a study recently published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

One of the earliest emerging symptoms of ASD is reduced attention to other people’s eyes. There are two key explanations of why children with ASD maintain less eye contact. Firstly, the ‘gaze aversion’ theory states that children purposefully look away from the eyes because they perceive the eyes to have negative connotations, despite having implicit knowledge about the social significance of eye contact. Another explanation called, ‘gaze indifference’ is that children with ASD do not perceive the eyes to be engaging and gain little social information when looking at them, therefore they spend less time looking at the eyes during social interactions.

The study conducted by Jennifer Moriuchi, Ami Klin and Warren Jones (Emroy University, Atlanta) collected eye tracking data from 86 two year olds, 26 of which had been diagnosed with ASD. In two experiments the eye movements of the children were tracked in response to direct and implicit cues to look at the eyes of an actress looking directly into the camera which was presented on a video.

The results showed that, when children were told to look directly at the eyes, those with ASD did not look away any faster than typically developing children. In fact, children with ASD tended to look longer at the eyes. When implicit cues were presented there was no evidence of children with ASD shifting their gaze away from the eyes or even subtly shifting their gaze to other locations on the face.

Overall, the results oppose the existing theory of ‘gaze aversion’ in ASD. The authors state that ‘reduced eye-looking in ASD at the time of initial diagnosis is not an anxiety-related response’. It is suggested that when children are initially diagnosed, any reduction in eye contact is a result of their insensitivity to the social signals that can be gained by looking someone directly in the eye during social interactions.

The findings from this study are important for future research into the neuropathology of ASD. Future research should focus on the development of brain networks that are involved in the processing of social cues, rather than focusing on reduced eye contact as a function of altered emotion and threat processing in the brain.