Children with autism miss the importance of social information in other people’s eyes, according to a new study. While less eye contact is a well-established symptom of autism used in early screeners and diagnostic instruments, but the reason behind this symptom has not been known. The new research, reported in the American Journal of Psychiatry, helps answer that question.
“This is important because we’re disentangling very different understandings of autism,” said Jennifer Moriuchi from Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, US. “Depending on why you think children with autism are making less eye contact, you might have different approaches to treatment and different ideas about the brain basis of autism,” Moriuchi explained.
The researchers analysed 86 two-year-old children with and without autism to find out how they paid attention to other people’s eyes. Children with autism watched a series of carefully made videos.
“Before each video, we flashed a small picture to capture the child’s attention, and when they looked to where the picture had been, they found that they were either looking directly at another person’s eyes or looking away from the eyes,” Moriuchi said.
“When we did this repeatedly, we found that young children with autism continued to look straight at the eyes. Like their peers without autism, they didn’t look away from the eyes or try to avoid the eyes in any way,” Moriuchi added. However when the children were presented with different levels of socially meaningful eye contact, autistic children looked less at the others’ eyes than with children who did not have autism.
“These results go against the idea that young children with autism actively avoid eye contact,” Warren Jones, Director of Research at Marcus Autism Centre in Atlanta.”They’re looking less at the eyes not because of an aversion to making eye contact, but because they don’t appear to understand the social significance of eye contact,” Jones noted.