Recent Study Explained Why Those with Autism Avoid Eye Contact by Analyzing Neural Responses

Communicating with people requires certain manners to build connections and to be more polite. One of those is making eye contact, so the person knows that your full attention is focused on them. Eye contact gives the other person a better understanding of your feelings through your expressions. Socializing becomes friendlier as misunderstandings are avoided when your eyes are fixed on their face. It conveys your message well, which is essential when meeting with an important person, especially at business meetings, university interviews, and such. Moreover, eye contact makes the other person feel more engaged — they’ll know you’re interested in the conversation.

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However, there are certain situations when people can’t look you straight in the eyes. Health conditions, such as autism, can wire people to avoid eye contact. It is one of the first symptoms you will notice when a person is on the autistic spectrum. Aside from eye contact, autism is diagnosed through the lack of social-emotional reciprocity, non-verbal communication, and the incapacity to understand relationships. Several research teams have studied the cause of this social behavior. In 2017, researchers from Athinoula A. Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging at Massachusetts General Hospital shared results from their study. It was later on published in the online journal Scientific Reports.

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“The findings demonstrate that, contrary to what has been thought, the apparent lack of interpersonal interest among people with autism is not due to a lack of concern,” says Nouchine Hadjikhani, MD, Ph.D., director of neurolimbic research in the Martinos Center. “Rather, our results show that this behavior is a way to decrease an unpleasant excessive arousal stemming from overactivation in a particular part of the brain.” The process involved the use of functional magnetic resonance imaging or fMRI. They compared the face-processing components of the subcortical system between those with autism and a controlled group. Their team analyzed the participant’s reaction during free viewing and focusing on the eye region.

According to reports, the two groups showed similar reactions during free viewing. Differences started when those with autism had to focus on viewing the eye region, and it became more apparent after various facial expressions were presented to them. In conclusion, there was an imbalance between the brain’s excitatory and inhibitory signaling networks in autism. Forced eye contact can induce anxiety in children with ASD. “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,” Hadjikhani suggested.

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For further understanding, a team of investigators from Yale supervised a separate study about the matter. During the research, they utilized an advanced technology capable of imaging two people in live and natural situations. The team observed signals from brain areas in the dorsal parietal region linked to the social symptomatology in autism. Participants were paired up — one with autism and an average adult. Researchers observed their engagement and how the brain responded to the interaction. The process used a neuroimaging method called near-infrared spectroscopy. They tested brain responses during face gaze and eye contact.

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Neuro activity information is gathered through the fitted caps worn by each participant. The equipment has sensors producing light to the brain and records changes in light signals. After collecting enough data, results showed that the brain stops responding during eye contact for those with autism. There was less brain activity when severe social symptoms of ASD existed. Symptom scores are measured via ADOS or Autism Diagnostic Observation Schedule 2nd Edition. Furthermore, brain activity between typical participants and those with ASD only exhibited differences as they looked at a video face.

“We now not only have a better understanding of the neurobiology of autism and social differences, but also of the underlying neural mechanisms that drive typical social connections,” says study author Joy Hirsch, Elizabeth Mears, and House Jameson Professor of Psychiatry, Comparative Medicine, and of Neuroscience. She led the team with her colleague from Yale, James McPartland, Harris Professor at the Yale Child Study Center. Their research was published in the journal PLOS ONE.

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