This artilce also appeared in the 2017, volume 3 issue of ARI’s Autism Research Review International newsletter.
New research indicates that individuals with autism spectrum disorders (ASD) avoid eye contact not because they lack interest in interacting socially, but because making eye contact causes them to experience unpleasant arousal in the brain’s subcortical system.
Nouchine Hadjikhani and colleagues enrolled 23 individuals with ASD and 20 controls in their study, which used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to measure brain responses. The researchers asked participants to view faces under two conditions. In the first condition they viewed the faces freely, while in the second condition they were asked to look at a cross located in the eye region of each face.
The researchers found that the two groups responded similarly during free viewing. However, participants with ASD exhibited over-activation of the face processing components of the subcortical system when they focused on the eye area.
The researchers say that constraining gaze to the eyes had the greatest effect on the amygdala in the group with ASD. The difference between the group with ASD and the controls was strongest for fearful faces, but also occurred when participants viewed happy faces. The researchers say, “This shows that the subcortical system in ASD over-reacts not only to threat-related stimuli, but also to stimuli that should be considered as positively engaging and socially rewarding.”
Hadjikhani says, “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. 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.”
Based on the study’s findings, Hadjikhani says that forcing individuals with autism to focus on other people’s eyes may be misguided. Instead, she says, “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.”
“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, and Christopher Gillberg, Nature Scientific Reports, June 9, 2017 (free online). Address: Nouchine Hadjikhani, email@example.com.
“Mass. General researchers explore why those with autism avoid eye contact,” news release, Massachusetts General Hospital, June 15, 2017.
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